For Mark and Yanara Peters, 2019 had been a year full of challenges.
Yet despite a less than average potato crop on Spruce Drive Farms, a dozen miles northwest of Portage la Prairie, the couple chose to keep a new tradition alive on their farm.
Sine 2016 they’ve donated more than 120,000 pounds of potatoes that would have otherwise gone to waste, in a community potato giveaway day in nearby Portage.
They could be forgiven if they’d chosen to forgo the event this year. The growing season was filled with adverse weather conditions – far too dry when the crop was developing, excessive rains, early, heavy snowfalls in the fall – and mud. So. Much. Mud.
Then an unprecedented 10-day power outage from an early-October storm added another layer of stress – keeping generators running so potatoes already dug and in storage did not spoil. Harvest was incredibly slow, difficult and late. Overall, the farming year was physically and emotionally draining.
Yet, late in the fall, when Mother Nature gave a brief window of opportunity, the Peters family took advantage and dug two extra truckloads of their crop, specifically for the event. From past experience, they knew it filled a need and also how good it felt to give.
“This year more than ever we were good and ready for a pick-me-up,” Yanara said as she smiled and patted Mark’s hand.
By the end of the day, November 2, they’d given away more than 44,000 pounds of potatoes.
Random act of kindness
It all began in 2016 as a result of circumstance. Seed potato production standards are very precise. That year, some of the Peters’ crop did not meet seed specifications but was perfectly suitable for the consumer market.
However, without a contract to sell consumer potatoes, there was no place for those spuds to go. They could have left them in the field and avoided incurring more costs, but that type of waste didn’t sit well with them. They opted to dig the crop and the community potato giveaway was born.
Fuelled by its success, and the gratification they felt afterwards, the event continued in 2017.
“It’s only potatoes, but it just brought so much to the community,” Mark said. “It’s a great opportunity to interact with people and hear their stories. The most basic need is being met with the most basic vegetable.”
But in 2018, Mother Nature had other plans. After an extremely wet fall, cold temperatures on October 11 froze 5,200 acres of unharvested potatoes in Manitoba. The Peters family was disheartened to lose what remained of their crop. What they had hoped would become an annual event was now not possible.
“We had them in the field, but when we got that early frost, that was it,” stated Mark. “We were disappointed, but that’s how it (farming) is. People understand.”
Then, smiling, he went on, “I didn’t expect to be able to do it this year, because it was so late. After the power outage and storm, I really didn’t think we’d be out there again. Once we realized we could, every load was just a gift – not expected at all, but so appreciated.”
It speaks volumes about the Peters family that they really don’t want to discuss the extra effort, time and cost it takes to do the giveaway, but they were quick to acknowledge their employees who helped dig and grade the potatoes (removing mud and spoiled potatoes). When their crew knew those last loads were slated for giving, they generously donated their time.
So on this fall, after missing a season, Mark and Yanara hosted their third event. Family and friends readily volunteered to help. The day was cool, but thankfully the temperature hovered just above the freezing mark. They loaded two potato trucks and a 36-foot conveyor and drove the 12 miles to Portage la Prairie. They arrived early to set up, but with word spreading through social media and the local radio station, a crowd soon gathered.
Peters and his volunteers moved quickly to get potatoes rolling out from the truck onto the conveyor to ease pickup. Two large totes (about 3,000 lbs.) of carrots donated by another local producer, Connery’s Riverdale Farms, added an unexpected bonus for those stopping by for spuds.
People came with bags, boxes, containers of all shapes and sizes to fill, not only for themselves, but for others – relatives, friends, shut-ins, those in need but with no transportation to get there. This is exactly the kind of giving and community building the Peters hoped to inspire when they had their very first giveaway.
Conversations about why the potatoes were so muddy, and smaller than normal, created opportunities to talk about the realities of farming. Yes, the giveaway is usually in mid-October, but the potatoes were still in the field then.
What makes the day so special though, is hearing the stories: potatoes going to a school lunch program and to families from that school; a young mom from India who has been here for nine years, delivering spuds to eight new Canadian families; a couple not taking for themselves, but for those in need in their neighbourhood. One gentleman driving by, saw the crowd gathered and stopped to inquire, “Free potatoes? Really? And carrots too?” He’d been asked to make food for a wake – it would now be a potato and carrot soup.
The atmosphere was jovial, light hearted and welcoming. Smiles, hugs, waves and heartfelt thank yous were abundant. Someone commented, “You’re making a lot of people very happy today.”
That continued – 9,000 lbs. were loaded into bulk bags for First Nations communities across the province – delivered for free by Principle Supply, a local company serving those communities.
“It felt good – to see people, to talk to them,” shared Yanara. “At the end of the day we felt thankful – that we could do it, for our community, for all the people who showed up. We had so many volunteers, but others who came to get potatoes ended up staying to help because it was so much fun to be there. People of all ages, from all walks of life, helped each other.”
This act of giving is a deliberate one for the Peters family. Their potato storage bin was not overflowing – they could’ve sold those 44,000 lbs. of potatoes, but wanted to give.
Faith plays a huge role – this is what they feel called to do. They also remember being on the receiving end of help when they were young.
Mark reflects, “It was a tough, very poor year. It would’ve been easy not to do the giveaway again, but we chose to do it and want to continue if at all possible. It’s how it should be.”
In a year which wore so many down in the farming community across the country, the Peters family created a way to fill their cup, make connections and build community – one potato at a time.