Meet Frits Dekker,
Hi, my name is Frits Dekker and our farm name is Dekker Farms. I have been farming since 1988 and I have been growing sugar beets since 1989. We grow 200 acres of beets, as well as export timothy hay, grain, barley, hard wheat, bean and sometimes hemp or flax. But sugar beets have always been our main crop – they’re the most steady one and it’s what pays the bills.
What brought you into farming?
I was born and raised on a farm in Holland and I never wanted to do anything else. But land was very expensive over there and there was no room to expand on my dad’s farm. He operated 100 acres, which was a fair-size in Holland, but too small for two people.
So my dad told me to go to either Canada or Brazil (since we had family farming in Brazil). But I chose Canada and came as an exchange student in 1978. I went back to Holland after, finished my school and then decided to return to Canada.
As an exchange student, I got to know some people in Ontario. So I contacted some to see if I could find a job – because at that time, you needed to have work and be sponsored in order to immigrate. I found work on a dairy farm in Ontario, but they kept telling me that if I wanted to do anything in farming, I should ‘go west.’
So, after three years there, I started driving west.
I drove through Burdett, AB and saw a guy who was growing potatoes along the highway. I thought 'this looks a lot like where I’m from, I could work here and I could live here.' So I went to the Farm and Labor poll in Lethbridge and found that the same farmer [whose potato crop I had driven by] was looking for a row crop farmer. So I came back, told him I was looking for a job like that and he said, ‘sure, when can you start?’ I’ve been in the area ever since.
How did you begin farming sugar beets?
So I have been farming sugar beets every year since 1989. At that time as a beginning farmer, you could apply for sugar beet quota. A bunch of farmers had just retired, so I was given 40 acres, which was the maximum amount you could get. After that, you could apply for more quota every year. Sometimes you lucked out and could get a couple acres, but it was usually two acres here, five acres there, ten this year, three years with nothing, then twenty acres, etc. So it was very slow gaining more quota, but in 2000 they closed the sugar factory in Manitoba and expanded the one here in Taber, increasing the amount of acres we could grow. So I applied for a circle of sugar beets (160 acres) and got it.
Has farming been viewed as more as a business for you or a lifestyle choice?
It has been a combination of both. It’s an enjoyable way to make a living – but you still have to make a living, so it also needs to be viewed as a business. You do have to worry about where your next paycheck is coming from and how you can be successful, keeping an eye on your costs, what’s coming in and what’s going out.
How have the advances of technology, machinery or equipment affected your farm or competition with your farm?
The biggest change has been the Roundup Ready beets – and we were actually the last farm to begin using them. You see, sugar beets always became a summer job for our kids and we wanted them to have work.
They would have to hoe the beets, which was a practice used to thin the crop and keep the weeds down before Roundup Ready seed.
So originally, we had multi-germ seed, which produced five or six plants from one seed. But in growing sugar beets, you only want one plant every six inches so they’re not crowding each other out, competing for nutrients and the room to grow. So then, you would have to ‘thin’ the field and hoe out five plants every six inches.
After that, we had monogerm seed. This produced one plant per seed, so we no longer had to thin out the crop, but we still had to spray them. The chemicals we had at the time were very expensive. So to save on costs, we would only spray a seven inch band of herbicide over top of the rows and in between the rows, we would cultivate the beets to get rid of the weeds. However, the chemicals we used were hard on the beets and would actually set their growth back quite a bit.
That meant we would use a very low rate of herbicides and we would have to re-spray them every 3-5 days -- so a lot of time was spent going up and down the field. Then, after you sprayed you would go back and cultivate in between the rows.
So with that, you would cultivate about three times a year and spray about five to six times a year. But of course, there were always weeds that escaped -- and anything that escaped was hoed by hand. So that’s what our kids would do as soon as summer holidays started – they would go to the field, walk up and down the rows and chop up anything that wasn’t a beet.
But now, with GMO sugar beets, we no longer have to do any of that. Now, you seed the crop, spray Roundup after your beets begin growing and then spray it once or twice more with a three-week interval in between. Then, it’s just harvest after that. Well, sometimes, you might cultivate the field to stop the land from blowing, like this Spring when we had the big wind storms. This works the soil up, just a little bit and stops the wind from taking your plants down. Growing the crop now is a big change, compared to what it used to be. Roundup doesn’t harm the sugar beets like the previous herbicides did before and it was much more labor intensive.
However, this is an expensive technology. Conventional seed used to cost us about $60/acre. Roundup Ready seed is about $100/acre and there is also a $100/acre technology fee – meaning it went from $60 to $200/acre. So, it is expensive, but you are able to save so much more on labor costs, fuel costs and chemical costs, that I don’t know anyone who would go back.
How do you see your role in the community?
I’m just another community member, I guess, trying to make a living. As [someone I know] used to put it, I’m just ‘struggling to feed a hungry world.’ Making a living, helping to feed the world.