Two potato producers in neighbouring provinces experienced very different years in 2021 but shared a similar desire to help others in need.

It was a tough year for potato growers in some parts of the country in 2021. Nowhere was that more true than in Manitoba, where extreme heat, a severe lack of precipitation and the ensuing drought conditions resulted in well-below normal yields for many spud producers.

Mark Peters can attest to that. Peters is a third-generation farmer and owner of Spruce Drive Farms in Portage la Prairie, Man., where he grows about 100 acres of seed potatoes each season. Peters says 2021 was one of the worst years on record for his operation and estimates his yield was down by 50 per cent compared to a typical year.

Still, that didn’t stop Peters and his family from carrying on what has become an annual tradition on their farm. Peters has been giving away potatoes to folks in Portage and other nearby communities since 2016 and this year was no exception. In October, Spruce Drive’s owners, employees and a handful of volunteers gave away an estimated 75,000 pounds of potatoes to anyone who wanted them.

Peters admits he and his family had to think long and hard about whether to continue with the giveaway this year, but ultimately decided it was too important to the community to halt it, even temporarily.

“It did seem odd to give away potatoes on a year like this, but we committed three acres for this event,” he says. “As well, there were some other farms and businesses who stepped in to provide some of the input costs for those acres.

“To me, there’s a difference between being charitable and being generous. Being charitable is when you give out of your extra and you do it when it makes sense. Being generous is when it doesn’t make sense and you just do it anyway. To me the reward is far greater (than the sacrifice). So, we made the commitment that that’s what we were going to do.”

Peters says the giveaway might well have been scaled back had it not been for the help provided by members of the Pine Creek Hutterite Colony, located about 60 kilometres west of Portage near the community of Firdale.

Colony members planted additional red potatoes this past spring after receiving extra seed from a local seed grower and they were looking to donate the tubers to those in need. They were connected with Peters after a local Simplot Foods representative heard him explaining the challenges with this year’s giveaway in an interview with CBC Radio and shared the colony’s situation with Peters.

“That’s what’s so cool about this. They had these extra acres (of potatoes) already given to them that they didn’t know what they were going to do with, and they’d irrigated them and it ended up being just a beautiful crop,” Peters explains.

“I ended up calling them a short time later. They said, ‘we’ll harvest them this afternoon and we’ll bring them out Saturday’. It was such a cool thing, especially since I wasn’t even sure if I was going to have enough for the giveaway.”

Colony members were so happy to be part of the event, Peters says, that they plan to stay in touch with him and indicated an interest in being involved in future giveaways.

“I think this might grow into something even bigger than it already is,” he adds.

Spruce Drive Farms annual potato giveaway.
Volunteers help hand out potatoes in Portage la Prairie, Man. as part of Spruce Drive Farms annual potato giveaway. Photo: Spruce Drive Farms

Although the giveaway in Portage has continued despite the pandemic, Peters acknowledges COVID-19 has forced changes to the way the event is organized. In the past, people could visit the corner lot in downtown Portage where the giveaway is held and grab whatever they could carry with them. The past two years the spuds were emptied onto a giant conveyor and groups of six socially distanced individuals could grab however much they wanted before making way for the next group of six.

“We had volunteers who really helped make things work. It was just fantastic. It worked so well,” he says.

One thing that remained the same this year was the reaction of people who showed up to grab some of the tasty tubers.

“They were just very grateful and very thankful,” Peters says.

“We see all kinds of people and age groups each year. There’s single people, families, First Nations, seniors. What we tell people is come and help yourself. You can take enough for supper or enough for the winter, there’s no strings attached.”

Ironically, all of the good that has come out of the Portage giveaway was originally born out of misfortune. In 2016, Peters rented a 30-acre field about seven miles away from his family farm to grow some additional potatoes. Unfortunately, those plants became unsalable for seed as a result of an accidental glyphosate spray drift.

Rather than rip the plants out or plow them under, Peters and his family decided to make the best of the situation and harvested a couple acres of the crop to donate to members of the community instead.

“It really bothered me at the time. I don’t like waste and most farmers don’t,” he recalls. “We want to reflect and live out our faith on our farm. We decided it was an opportunity to do something about it and possibly redeem the situation. We realized there was a need here in Portage and decided that as a farm maybe this was something we could do every year.”

Sharing in the Good Times

It’s a similar story at family-owned Fer-Mar Farm, located just outside the village of Lafontaine, Ont. Brothers Henri and Thomas Maurice along with sons, Cim, Tyler and Rejean have donated thousands of pounds of potatoes grown on their 350-acre farm over the past 20 years. In the first half of this year alone, Fer-Mar donated more than 20,000 pounds of potatoes to a number of different community organizations and expects to distribute a similar amount from this year’s crop when all is said and done.

“I’m a firm believer in the saying that if you give you shall receive,” says Cim Maurice, who has been working on the family farm for the past 25 years. “And we have. Our business has done well and we’ve done well too, we’re all healthy.”

Despite a little too much rain and some disease pressure this summer, Maurice says his family’s farm was blessed with a bumper crop. Things were so good, in fact, they had to use almost every available building for storage.

“All of our machinery is sitting outside right now. We’ve got potatoes in every building we own,” Maurice says, laughing.

A truck used on Fer-Mar Farm in Lafontaine, Ont. Photo: Fer-Mar Farm

Such a crop couldn’t have come at a better time, according to Maurice. Many in the surrounding community have had a tough time making ends meet during the pandemic and his family is only too glad to lend a hand.

“Things are getting tougher and tougher for a lot of people. We see it a lot around here. More and more people are going to the foodbanks and shelters. A lot of people are really struggling (because of the pandemic),” he says.

Fer-Mar has worked closely with a number of First Nations organizations over the years to determine how they can help them and their members. That includes groups such as Georgian Bay Metis Council, Owen Sound Metis Nation, Moon River Metis Nation, Metis Nation of Ontario, and the Georgian Bay Native Women’s Association. The farm has also been generous in its support to local food banks in communities such as Barrie and Midland.

While giving is its own reward, Maurice says he and his family have been extremely gratified by the response their generosity has generated among members of the community.

“The comments on Facebook and social media is unbelievable. People are really appreciative of the help. It makes you feel absolutely great. How could it not? Our whole farm is proud of what we do.”

Header photo — Potatoes from Spruce Drive Farms ready to be given away. Photo: Spruce Drive Farms

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