Wingard Farms has been growing potatoes for a century

by Joni Astrup

Associate Editor

Elk River’s Wingard Farms is celebrating its 100th year.

Descendants of the founder, Arthur Wingard, own and operate the farm today. The farm’s sprawling 30,580-square-foot potato packing warehouse is located at 15596 County Road 14 in Big Lake Township and the family farms 900 acres of land within a 3-mile radius of that site. Three hundred seventy-five acres produce potatoes; seed corn and soybeans are grown on the rest.

The farm got its start in 1918, when Arthur Wingard traded his hotel near Mille Lacs Lake for land in Brooklyn Center. There he began growing potatoes and other vegetables. After World War II, a housing boom prompted Arthur to relocate the farm to Sherburne County in 1956 and develop the Brooklyn Center site into housing, located today across the creek from Park Center High School.

Tom Wingard, Arthur’s grandson, said his ancestors looked for two things when choosing a new place for the farm: sand and good water.

Sandy, irrigated soil is ideal for raising potatoes, and Wingard Farms has thrived over the years.

Arthur’s sons, John and Art, were partners in the farm after Arthur. Today, the farm’s owners are John’s son, Tom Wingard, his sons Mark and David Wingard, Art’s son, Art Wingard, and Dan Ward.

Tom said in 100 years of farming, they’ve never experienced a major disaster.

“We’ve been very successful and we have some very good customers,” he said.

One of their customers is Walmart. During their harvest season from July to October they ship a semi load of potatoes a day — up to 42,000 pounds — in 5- and 10-pound Wingard Farms-labeled bags to Walmart’s warehouse in Mankato. From there, the Wingard potatoes are sent to Walmarts throughout Minnesota.

They also supply Coborn’s and Super One Foods grocery stores.

Other Wingard potatoes end up throughout the eastern and southern United States and occasionally into Canada. They don’t ship west because Idaho and Colorado supply that region of the country. Tom said they sell some potatoes direct and use about 25 different potato brokers to market the rest.

They specialize in russets. They also grow 25 acres of reds and 3 acres of yellow potatoes.

No potatoes are stored over the winter. Rather, they sell them fresh. Tom said their potatoes can be harvested, processed and on the truck as quickly as the same day, headed for their final destination.

“Our product is very fresh,” Tom said. “The people that eat our potatoes enjoy that part of it because they taste so much better fresh.”

The potatoes are processed right from the field at the Wingard Farms potato packing warehouse, where they are washed, dried, sized, inspected and packaged. About 30 seasonal employees work at the warehouse at the height of the season.

Wingard Farms also sells potatoes direct to the public at the warehouse (closed Sundays). A craft shop, spearheaded by Tom’s wife, LuAnn, is also open at Wingard Farms from Nov. 9-18.

Tom said one thing that has changed in the years he has been farming is the speed of the operation, as tasks once done in the warehouse by hand were automated. As a result, more potatoes are processed in a day. He remembers when they typically shipped two semi loads of potatoes a day. Now they routinely ship 10 or more and have shipped as many as 16.

Asked what they like about farming, Tom said, “Well, it’s not dull.”

LuAnn added, “Every day it’s different. Every single day.”

Family operation

Meanwhile, the next generation is forging ahead.

Tom and LuAnn’s sons, Mark and David, both returned to the farm after pursuing careers following college.

In addition to being owners, they have their own responsibilities.

Mark is a 1998 graduate of Elk River High School. He has a degree in finance from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and worked as a financial planner in Rochester for a year before coming back to Wingard Farms.

“The suit and tie wasn’t for me,” he said.

He does a lot of the field work in the spring and summer and manages a crew at the warehouse during the processing season. He and Art Wingard also built a lot of the conveyors and other machines in the warehouse.

He said he likes farming because you get out of it what you put into it.

“With the corporate world you can work as hard as you want, but you don’t necessarily see the benefits from it,” he said.

Looking forward, he said the farm will have to continue to adapt. As an example, he said in earlier times potatoes were packaged in 100-pound bags and that was it.

Now they put their potatoes in packages ranging from 3-pound bags to 2,000-pound totes and everything in between.

“You’ve got to be able to adapt to what the customers’ needs are, instead of doing what you’re used to doing,” he said.

David is a 2002 graduate of Elk River High School and has a degree in operations management from the University of St. Thomas. He worked in a supervisory role at a Michael Foods’ potato processing plant for almost five years before deciding to come back to the family business.

“The corporate world is a little bit different than owning your own business,” he said. He felt he could make a bigger impact working at Wingard Farms, where he is the quality assurance and food safety manager.

He said ensuring the farm meets food safety standards has become more rigorous over time and the farm will have to continue to adapt to change in the future.

“Our customers demand it,” he said.

Computer software plays a key role in the operation. Even the irrigation system can be controlled with a smartphone, and technology helps immensely when it comes to quality assurance and food safety.

As an example, the boxes of potatoes have a time stamp on them as well as a barcode label, which allow the potatoes to be traced back not only to Wingard Farms, but to the specific field where they were grown.

As the farm marches toward the end of another season, it has 100 years of history behind it.

“We’ve got a quality product and we appreciate all the customers that support us,” David said. “Hopefully we can continue for another 100 years.”

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