Re-peat business

September 7, 2018

MORRISON – Steve Baar’s grandparents didn’t have much when they emigrated to the United States from Holland in 1933.

More than 85 years later, Baar and his wife, Gwen, do business with a variety of plants and vegetables using the same soil his family found along a bottom around Rock Creek near Fenton. 

Potatoes remain the specialty at Baar & Sons Potato Farm, 12712 Fenton Road. Though the large sign leading to the driveway reads “Baar & Sons Potato Farm,” there’s more than just potatoes popping up from their peat.

Different kinds of potatoes and a wide variety of vegetables can be found at the farm, owned by Steve’s parents and maintained by the third generation of Baars.

“His grandfather came over on the boat through Ellis Island with a rake or a shovel,” Gwen said. “They were broke, and started farming.”

About 100 acres of property is set aside for corn, and 65 acres are for potatoes.

“It’s potatoes, corn, beans, and 10 acres of garden,” Steve said. “It’s a pretty good-sized garden. It keeps us out of trouble.”

The most common image of a potato is brown and oval-shaped, but there are more kinds of potatoes. The Baars raise red, white, Yukon gold and Russet potatoes – the latter the more-common brown-skinned variety – and raise more red potatoes than anything else. Yukon golds are a wetter and pastier potato with yellow, sweet flesh.

Many stores like to carry the red potatoes because the others can turn green under fluorescent lights. They are the first potatoes to be grown and are usually ready by mid-August.

“The red potatoes are a wetter potato, and are great for potato salad,” Gwen said. “The whites ones are good for baking, mashing and frying. They’re a drier potato and they’re flakier. They’re along the lines of a russet. We sell a lot of russets for multi-purpose potatoes, because they’re big and [people] like the size.”

None of the potatoes have to be transported on road to the barn; rather, wagons traverse the many strips of dirt roads to collect the produce. Potatoes are dumped from wagons to a rear room of the barn and go through a potato grader. After passing through a dirt eliminator, the potatoes go up and through a sizer, where any that are less than 2 inches get weeded out. They then go through a washer and through dryer rolls, and a pair of workers grade them at the end of the line. 

Anything odd-shaped is a No. 2, according to Steve, and thrown into a different spot and bagged in 50-pound bags. The larger ones eventually get stacked onto 2,000- to 2,200-pound totes.

“If a potato sits dead on the ground, the skin toughens up,” Steve said. “We have a machine to make it a nice looking product.”

Potatoes and cabbage were the original specialties, but Steve’s mother, Neva, expanded the farm to include a wide variety of vegetables. 

Asparagus, cauliflower, green onions, leaf lettuce, okra, peas, radishes, spinach, and tomatoes are among the common vegetables grown in the garden near the barn. The vegetables are Gwen’s specialty, and she likes them hand-picked. 

In addition to the farm, Gwen has a table at a farmers market in the Quad Cities every Wednesday and Saturday.

“I didn’t really want to do it,” recalled Gwen, who didn’t grow up on a farm. “We had a child and I needed another job, and I knew [Steve] wanted me to become a part of it. I ended up loving it.”

Among the vegetables difficult to find fresh at many stores are lima beans and kohlrabi; Baar & Sons raises and sells both. 

“People like it,” Gwen said of the kohlrabi. “It’s a member of the cabbage family. Most people eat it raw.”

The secret to the Baars’ success lies in the soil – actually, it’s peat, which is light, spongy and can retain water better than regular soil. The area around the Baars’ farm was once part of a slough of the Mississippi River thousands of years ago when the river bed wound a few miles east of the current channel. Peat farms surround the Baars’ property on three sides. 

Upon entering the Baars’ property, a long driveway leads to a raised, at-grade Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway crossing. The peat, and most of the farm, lies east of the tracks, and the Baars have noticed a difference in the freshness of their produce depending on the type of ground.

“The peat grows good crops,” Steve said. “Wet years, not quite so good; it can get back quick. It’s a high mineral soil. It’s good ground.”

“Steve’s mom realized that the soil helped grow good root crops such as beets and carrots,” Gwen added, “Someone would say to her, ‘Can you raise my beans?’ and she started to do all these vegetables.”

Baar & Sons Potato Farm is open from early May to late October, or until the produce runs out. The Baars have a staff of four employees when potatoes are not in season, and around 15 when they’re in season – most of whom are friends, neighbors, or other farmers. 

Machinery keeps the potato farm operating efficiently, but some signs of the farm’s past can still be found on the property. The original barn sits to the left of the railroad crossing; half of it was razed recently.

“It had one grader, and my husband’s grandmother would turn a crank on it all day so that it would roll to grade the potatoes,” Gwen said. “They were 100-pound bags, hand-sown with twine.”

Times have changed, but the peat has not – and its kept Baar & Sons Potato Farm prospering and growing.

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