Back in 1995, William ‘Neil’ Thompson was looking to change things up on his Riverhurst, Sask., wheat farm. “At that time the price of cereals was down a little, and I was looking to even that operation out and make a bit of money,” says Thompson.
That something different was potatoes, and Thompson’s initial planting efforts have grown into a bustling seed potato operation known as RAP 2000. Today, Thompson dedicates between 600 to 1,100 acres to grow french fry grade E1, E2 and E3 white seed potatoes. Each year, popular varieties like Ranger Russet, Russet Burbank, and Umatilla Russet are harvested under the 12-ounce size, and then sold to other growers who supply major companies like McCain Foods Canada, Simplot, Cavendish Farms and Lamb Weston.
Thompson and his wife, Carol, have built their business from the fertile ground up, spending a lot of time performing market research and promotion. “We were about three years into the business before we put a potato into the ground. We went to potato shows all around North America and got to know the names of other growers and suppliers,” says Thompson. “In the beginning we had a lot of help and support from buyers and other growers. They’re still loyal clients of ours.”
Once the Thompsons determined that the Riverhurst area could compete in terms of Saskatchewan potato production, there’s been no looking back. Thompson says Rap 2000’s off-the-beaten-path location has been an advantage, since it helps keep 99 per cent of seed potatoes diseases at bay.
When it comes to disease control, “we use our own judgment,” Thompson says. He adds that experts and specialists are occasionally brought in when specific information or testing is required. In these instances, agronomists are consulted and a variety of soil tests are undertaken to maintain proper soil health for optimal crop results.
The farm’s relatively remote location means transportation costs are higher, but Thompson feels the added expense is worth it to produce high-quality seed potatoes, while reducing risks of disease. Being off the beaten track also makes for a tight-knit group—employees joining the business and helping build its success over the years now feel like family, says Thompson, who has enjoyed watching workers get married, have children, and even grandchildren during the 18 years of the farm’s existence.
RAP 2000 maintains two storage facilities in nearby Riverhurst, which can store the full 1,100 acres of production or approximately 27.5 million pounds of potatoes. To help finance the operation, there is a silent partner with a 50 per cent stake. Thompson, however, oversees all production, and says other growers sometimes help front costs when requesting specific types of potato.
“They’re looking for a certain type of unique seed potato, which they would like [to be] grown for their own operations, and they are willing to pay for it,” says Thompson. What that means is new innovations are sometimes paid for by customers looking to specialize in order to get exactly what they want in a seed potato.
Thompson knows the profits in growing potatoes can vary wildly. Despite “large gross, little net sometimes,” Thompson says it’s a business he enjoys and he believes potato farming has a good solid future.