Family continues vegetable farming tradition

Published 9:01 am Thursday, April 21, 2011

HOLLANDALE — Tuesday’s snow wasn’t a big concern for Pete Van Erkel, owner of Van Erkel Farms southwest of Hollandale.

“Good things or bad things happen before and after the growing season,” he said. “It’s what happens during growing season that makes the difference. It’s going to be a late spring.”

Van Erkel has seen his share of late springs over the years, farming the same land that his grandfather first cultivated into the vegetable farm when moving to Hollandale back in 1924.

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Vegetable farming, in fact, was how his grandparents ended up there. Van Erkel said that plots of land in the Hollandale area were developed specifically to draw vegetable farmers to settle there.

“The idea was to raise vegetable crops on small tracts,” he said.

While Van Erkel raises some corn and soybeans, the bulk of his crop each year is potatoes, carrots and onions. In fact, Van Erkel and his crew were busy on Tuesday, loading trucks with seed potatoes that were headed to the state of Washington. He said about 40 percent of his crop is shipped off to an area north of Seattle.

The potatoes he raises are seed potatoes, which are sold to people around the United States who plant and grow these potato byproducts into the full-grown potatoes we buy at markets and in the stores.

One thing he’s proud of is that he sells his potato byproducts to a grower who cultivates the crop into potatoes which are then distributed to Mrs. Gerry’s in Albert Lea. Those very potatoes are then used for one of the most popular varieties of Mrs. Gerry’s potato salad.

The carrots raised at Van Erkel Farms are used for canning, shipped to Lakeside Foods in Owatonna and Seneca Foods in Rochester. The onions are shipped to major markets in Chicago and the Twin Cities area.

While vegetable farming thrived in the Hollandale area at one time, now more than 80 years later, only a handful of vegetable farmers remain.

Van Erkel said several factors have attributed to the decrease of these crops, including the fact that fruit and vegetable growers in the U.S. do not receive subsidies from the government. Others include the risk of factors they have no control over, such as the weather, and alternative crops.

“When you can get six to 10 inches of rain overnight, that’s risky,” he said. “It’s really a totally different sort of economics with potatoes.”

He said growing a perishable crop takes a lot more attention to detail in the storage and handling than that of corn and soybeans. Perishable crops require temperature-controlled storage spaces and proper ventilation and humidity levels. His potatoes must also be winter-tested before he can sell them to growers in the spring.

Van Erkel said marketing is the key to success in vegetable farming.

“If you raise corn and soybeans and the bins get full, you can sell them at the local elevator,” he said.

That’s not the case for potatoes and carrots. He said they contract the bulk of their vegetables in the spring but it’s important to try to have a second market lined up if there’s an overrun of produce in the fall.

“If we have a big crop in the fall, we may not even harvest them all because there’s nowhere to send them,” he said.

While the farm continues to thrive on some hand labor, Van Erkel said changes in technology allow them to do a lot more of the work with fewer people, not unlike many businesses that have been running for nearly a century. He retains a “very talented” crew of full and part-timers.

Looking ahead, Van Erkel is positive the family tradition will go on for years to come.

“I have a son that’s recently went to college for engineering, and now he’s on the farm, so we’ll see what happens,” he said.