Prince Edward Island, commonly abbreviated PEI, is the smallest province in Canada and named after Edward, Duke of Kent. Not even half a percent of Canadians live in this province, which consists of a main island and a series of smaller islands. In 1982 Peter and Jetty VanNieuwenhuyzen moved the family to Prince Edward Island and bought a mixed farm. In 2001, the current generation, brothers Willem, Rit, and Phillip VanNieuwenhuyzen took over the family farm. I speak with Rit about the farm and his Dutch ancestry.
Rit still speaks a few words of Dutch mainly because that’s what he speaks with his mother. He understands the language a lot better than he speaks it. “We started as potato farmers,” he says. Today, Vanco Farms focuses on tulips and special potato varieties most of which are sold across the USA and Canada through ‘The Little Potato Company’. Tulips and potatoes are not an obvious combination and Rit explains that it grew from previous experience. “My grandfather cultivated tulips in the Dutch province of Friesland. My brother worked in British Columbia for a while at a tulip grower’s and I did an apprenticeship at a tulip grower’s in the Netherlands. That’s how we got introduced to tulips. The son of the grower I did an internship with immigrated to Canada and has become a partner in our business. His name is Bas Arendse and he is the expertise and manages the tulip farm.” Vanco Farms now employs one hundred people. It takes a lot of planning because Vanco Farms prefers working with the same people. Here too, the combination of potatoes and tulips is ideal because the crops are labour intensive in different seasons. And if it rains a lot, there’s always work to do in the greenhouses. Apart from the potatoes and tulips, Vanco Farm also produces wheat and peas.
Rit explains that they bought their first ZA2400 crop sprayer from Agrifac in 1998 and that they’re still happy with it. “We use this machine exclusively for organic crops. Organic-approved pesticides are readily available but we only use them if we really have to. Even so, the machine is still working fulltime. We can’t allow ourselves to have any downtime, so last year we decided to strengthen the team with two new Agrifac Condor Endurance machines.”
When I asked why they chose to grow organic crops, Rit answered that it wasn’t because customers were asking for it, but because they wanted to differentiate themselves. “We really don’t want to be mainstream, which is why we started growing tulips and have very specific potato varieties and organic crops. We also believe in handing down land that’s in good condition. In the end, it’s about striking the right balance between profit and sustainable yield. If we focus purely on profit, we’ll end up depleting the soil. My brothers and I have looked around in other countries. We found farmers who were searching for the same balance. We’re not the only ones. We know that we have to think in the long term. When we were kids, we drove our toy tractors around the fields. When we reach the age of 75, we still want to look out over healthy fields.”
“We want to improve the quality of the soil and reduce the negative impacts on the environment. To protect the top layer, the potatoes are rotated with wheat. This cover crop protects the soil from water and wind, which could easily blow away the soil.” Rit says that soil erosion is a problem in their part of the country. The farms also used to be smaller and the different fields were separated by trees. Today, the fields are much bigger and the soil would be fully exposed to the elements without a cover crop. They also don’t plough the whole farm, but they can’t work entirely without a plough either says Rit. “In conventional farming, the plough is used to plough in yellow mustard as organic bio-fumigant, and to combat pests such as wire worm. This enables us to use a couple of organic techniques on conventional soil.”
“Farming’s in our blood,” says Rit. “We hope that the next generations will continue the family tradition. We’ve been a farming family as far back as we can trace our ancestry.” He tells me that the oldest of the third Canadian generation is now fourteen. “In Canada, you don’t have to choose a secondary school at this age. But I would be surprised if he didn’t opt for farming. The children love going into the fields, sitting on the plough or helping with something else. Here too, everything is about striking a healthy balance!”
Josephine van Gelder