Eleven years ago, things weren’t going so well for Manitoba potato grower Sheldon Wiebe.
Wiebe had gone through some really tough years on his farm just outside MacGregor, and it prompted him to take stock: he could continue dryland potato farming on the fields where his family had been growing spuds for three generations, or he could look somewhere else.
“That fall I went for a drive 20 miles west of us to the escarpment,” says the owner of J.P. Wiebe Ltd. Wiebe was looking for farming opportunities in a region known for producing rich crops of irrigated potatoes, and he obviously liked what he saw on the Manitoba Escarpment.
“We sold most of our land in MacGregor and started to buy up land up there,” Wiebe says. “We’ve been expanding every year for the past 10 years.”
A half section was purchased in 2005, and today 4,500 acres is farmed up on the escarpment. Of that, 1,400 acres of Russet Burbanks and Umatilla Russets are grown on irrigated land by Wiebe, and he rents out the rest of rotational acres to his father and his brother, who grow canola, rye, winter wheat and soybeans.
Wiebe still owns the original family farm, and all of the infrastructure and storage facilities are based there. His wife Jennifer and his two oldest sons help run the farm, and he has another son and a daughter in high school in MacGregor.
Quality and Quantity
The proof that Wiebe’s plan has paid off is in the numbers. “Our yield goal used to be around 180 to 200 bags an acre; now our yield goals are closer to 450 bags an acre,” says Wiebe, who’s coming off his best ever year for potatoes with an impressive yield of around 500 bags per acre in 2016.
Wiebe says a great full-time and seasonal staff helped make that possible, as well as recent purchases of new planting and harvesting equipment and having a solid agronomy team has also contributed to the farm’s success.
“We’ve added some new storages in the last few years too, and that really helps with our quality coming out of storage as well,” he says.
Wiebe is clearly a staunch believer in taking advantage of new technologies and new techniques to improve potato production.
“I think if most growers do this, it strengthens our industry,” he says. “I enjoy the challenge of new things, and I would say that 95 per cent of the new things that we take on pay off in a very short period of time.”
While the potato sector has had its challenges in recent years, Wiebe believes innovation is key to the future success of his industry.
“People have to eat,” he says. “As long as we do our part in the industry to be competitive, I think the companies will continue to find markets for us. I’m optimistic.”
Wiebe, who grows potatoes for McCain and Simplot, says he was urged to go the irrigation route by his processing partners. “We needed to be able to control our quality a little better and get better yield, and we were really struggling in doing that.”
“It’s a little bit more work driving that far to work every day, but it works very well for us,” says Wiebe, who seems to enjoy the best of both worlds. He continues to enjoy life in his beloved hometown, surrounded by family and many close friends, while enjoying the benefits of a thriving potato business.
“We’re right by MacGregor and I’ve lived here my whole life,” he says. “I love our small community.”