Heritage Highlights: Changes in Kroeker Farms over the years

A more modern approach to potato farming.

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By Donald Kroeker – When AAK started farming in 1928 the plow was a major tillage instrument and remained so through the fifties but we haven’t used a plow significantly now for many years. The plow buried weeds nice and deep but left the land open to wind erosion. We have introduced many minimum till strategies and grow cover crops to combat wind erosion.
Over the last 20 years or so, we have also worked to minimize damage from excess water through soil leveling and installation of sub surface drainage on much of our land. We seek to minimize the effects of drought through storing spring run-off in reservoirs (this started in a small way in the 50’s) to use in summer for irrigation as well as irrigating from rivers.
The Kroeker farming enterprise was given a big boost by the introduction of corn production onto our farm in the 30’s. Our corn drying kilns were fueled by burning the cobs, after the dried corn was shelled, to provide the heat for the next batch to be dried. When I was a teenager, I was foreman for detasseling corn to produce hybrids. This involved removing tassels on the female strain of corn before pollen developed. (so that pollen from the male strains in adjacent rows would pollenize the female strain.) Contracting corn was put into temporary bins before drying in the corn dryer. We had to walk the fields on an almost daily basis to remove the tassel at just the right stage. The core of my crew consisted of Hildebrand sisters, our neighbours. I enjoyed that job. We no longer do this.
The threshing machine was used on our farm longer than on some others. Sheaves of grain were loaded onto wagons, pulled by horses (one team was Dinah and Might – dynamite) and taken to the stationery threshing machine. The hopper holding the threshed grain was on stilts, high enough so that the grain was easily unloaded. I sometimes had the privilege of standing in the hopper, pushing the grain away from the spout so that the hopper could be well filled. Underneath the hopper was a table and benches. Mother would deliver a hot meal to the threshing crew who would enjoy it at this table. Although the threshing machine is long gone, the practice to bring food to the field or to the storage to feed workers during a long work day still continues.
Until about 1950, we still harvested potatoes by hand. A mechanical digger would deposit potatoes on the ground. Teams of two would work together, each filling a basket and then helping each other to empty the baskets into a jute bag. They were paid by the bag for this work. I sometimes drove the tractor pulling a trailer where men would load these bags onto the trailer as it slowly drove along. The full load was transported to an underground storage near Schanzenfeld. Here the potatoes were dumped into a chute and thus lowered into the 18’ deep bin. Someone controlled the outlet at the bottom so that the chute was kept full and potatoes slowly reached the bottom without bruising. One spring I did retail seed potato sales out of this storage and had to carry 100 lb. sacks of potatoes up the stairs from this deep storage cellar.
My early experience of planting potatoes is sitting at the back of a two row tuber-unit potato planter. Four of us would place potato pieces, two persons per row, onto a rotating plate with a hole for each piece round the perimeter. Two more people handed potatoes down onto the middle of this plate where we picked them up. This crew of seven, including the tractor driver, could plant about an acre an hour.
Potato production has changed radically since that time. Now six or eight row planters with only a tractor operator plant 60 acres per day. Harvesters pick up as many as twelve rows of potatoes at a time with only an operator on the machine. The potatoes are loaded onto tridem trucks driving alongside with 35,000 lb loads being filled in three minutes under good conditions.
We were ahead of most people when we set up a tower and got our first two way radios for communication. I remember once we were assigned a wrong frequency and in one specific area broadcast our talking over CFAM. That was rectified very quickly. Now everyone uses cell phones for communication. GPS now helps us achieve straight rows, automates leveling, assists in record keeping. Software programs speed analysis that we did painstakingly manually in the late fifties when managing the farm.
At the potato storage, bin conditions can be monitored from a distance, hollow potatoes can be detected by x-ray and removed automatically. Sizing into uniform lots is done without a human touch. Bags can be opened, filled, weighed and closed while we only watch.
What hasn’t changed is the challenge to keep improving the product and the service and to facilitate joy and a sense of involvement and ownership among the staff. We continue to strive to fulfill the mission of Kroeker Farms established many years ago, “to meet people’s needs through innovative agriculture in a way that honours God.”
Heritage Highlights, supplied by the Winkler Heritage Society, introduces readers to the people, places and things that still impact us today. The Winkler Heritage Museum is located in the Southland Mall and is open Tuesday to Friday, 12 to 4 p.m., Saturdays 10 am – 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday evenings. The Archives located in the Winkler Centennial Library are open Wednesdays from 3 to 5 p.m.. For appointments call archivist Ed Falk at 204-325-8929. The Stones and Stories binders are on display at both locations. Come for a visit!