Van Berlo family – Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes
By Melanie Epp
Breaking new ground: Innovation enables expansion
If the sweet potato had originated in Canada, it might have been more tolerant to our colder temperatures. But it didn’t.
Instead, it hails from the tropics, where warmer temperatures and longer seasons mean that its jacket is thin and easily damaged by the Canadian cold. Here at home, farmers have adopted shorter season varieties with great success. But the very nature of the sweet potato, along with the fact that it’s chronically underdressed, makes harvesting the crop a constant challenge. No one knows this better than the largest sweet potato producing family in Canada, the Van Berlos who grow under the company name Berlo’s Best Sweet Potatoes.
The Van Berlos – Peter Sr., Peter Jr. (29), and Nick (26) – grow sweet potatoes, ginseng and tobacco on 1,500 acres of land near Simcoe, Ont. Their farm wasn’t always this big, though. For them, expansion, particularly in sweet potatoes, couldn’t have happened until they found a better way to harvest the crop.
Sweet potato challenges
Sweet potatoes grow about a foot below the soil’s surface and are harvested using a combination of a plow and field workers. The crop is sensitive, not only to rough handling but to damage from the plow. The crop is also susceptible to cold temperatures so the harvest window is short. For the Van Berlos, expansion of his sweet potato acreage meant he had to find a way to harvest the crop more quickly while limiting damage.
Through a combination of ingenuity and innovativeness, the Van Berlos designed a piece of machinery that is yet to be named. Nick refers to it as a “mechanized digging system.”
“If the machine had existed, we would have bought it,” he says. “But we needed something that didn’t exist on the market, so we designed and built it for ourselves.”
The machine digs 18 inches below the soil’s surface, sifting the potatoes out of the soil and onto a primary belt. From here, the potatoes travel to an inspection line where workers sort and grade them by hand. Marketable potatoes are put onto a secondary belt for final field inspection. From there, they are packed into 3,000-pound bins and brought by wagon to a nearby facility where they are cured, stored and packed for the fresh market.
“Sweet potatoes have to be cured,” says Nick. “They have to go through a process that converts a lot of the starches into sugar. It enhances the shelf life, taste and preservation of the sweet potato. If they’re not cured, they’ll only last for about a week to 10 days, and they’ll be starchier. But if they’re cured, they’ll be that nice sweet, deep orange colour and their shelf life is quadrupled.”
Without their mechanized digging machine, the Van Berlos would require 300-400 workers during harvest. That size of labour force is both expensive and difficult to manage. With their machine, though, they’re able to harvest with the help of 70 employees.
“We’re about three times the size of the second biggest sweet potato grower in Canada, but all sweet potato growers in Ontario and in Canada have similar challenges,” says Van Berlo. “I guess our advantage is being able to develop machinery in-house and having the capability to mechanize a lot of the processes and take the guess work out of them.”