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The long green rows of Johannes Itzke.

In 1955 When Johannes Itzke started vegetable farming he rented 2 1/2-plus hectares in Winnipeg. Today, at 60, he owns 324 hectares and is Canada's largest - and some say best - producer of cauliflower.

Baie St. Paul, Manitoba - From the high road, the low, wide field of cauliflower is like a life-sized Andy Warhol repetition painting. Row after row of seemingly perfect, green leafy clones stand like battalions of short soldiers waiting to move out. Soon they will, for it's harvest time at the Itzke River Farm, Canada's largest producer of cauliflower. The action is non-stop as thousands of cauliflower, cabbage, corn and celery are harvested for markets in Canada and the U.S.

While the rows look perfect, a closer look reveals not all cauliflower or cabbages are the same.

In cauliflower, the main crop, some are too big, too small, yellow instead of creamy white. But many are just right and those are the ones that are picked and wrapped in cellophane bearing the logo IRF-Itzke River Farm Ltd.

This is the farm of 60-year-old Johannes Itzke and his family. Johannes came to Manitoba from his home in Germany in 1955 when he was 25 and worked for one summer with a market gardener. With two hands, a willingness to work hard, and a loyal family, today he owes not a penny on his 324-hectare farm valued at about $5 million.

Itzke started his road to independence in the mid-1950s by renting 2 1/2 hectares near Winnipeg on the Red River in Fort Garry. He then moved to St. Norbert, a few kilometres away, where he bought 20 hectares and rented 24 more. In 1973 his profits were such that he bought 324 hectares along Highway 26 just east of the Baie St. Paul Bridge on the north side of the Assiniboine River in the St. Eustache area west of Winnipeg. He says he moved because the soil is lighter than the heavy soil along the Red River.

The farm is the largest producer of cauliflower in Canada and involves the entire Itzke clan. John, 33, looks after things mechanical, while his wife, Fran, works in the office. Uwe Itzke, 31, is in charge of manpower and Astrid Itzke, 28, the only daughter, works on payroll and in the fields. Her husband, Gerry Meilleur, heads a work crew. He has a degree in commerce, Astrid says proudly. "He could be elsewhere, but he says he'd rather be here than pushing a pencil."

There is no visible extravagance around the farm except for the Mercedes in the garage attached to the Itzke home; spacious, plain and immaculate (leave your shoes at the door). Tea is offered in a delicate cup of proper English Bone China, no saucer.

Johannes is a relaxed, healthy-looking man with a ready smile. Reflecting on his farm, he says hard work is a necessary ingredient for success but there is another major personal factor that won for him a good life.

Will power, "more than anything, built the farm," he says with his wife, Heddy, at his side. "And you've got to have an objective; we did it for our kids."

TEXTBOOK BUSINESS

The Itzke operation appears to be textbook business practice. Hard work, cautious growth, a tabor source to match product value, no bank loans, family back-up and pride in product.

Johannes had to deal with lending institutions a couple of times, once with a short-term $20,000 loan and once on a line of credit.

"I believe that you grow a little at a time and not borrow money," he says. "That way you don't have to pay interest and the bank doesn't own things, you do."

He uses his own money in the annual gamble against the weather. If Johannes Itzke is going to invest in a business, it may as well be his own.

"What I make on the farm I put back into the farm," he says. "I don't have alternate places for my money other than the farm.

He starts in the spring with $550,000, and when the last vegetable is gone his gross income from sales is about $2.5 million. His net is private information. But if there is an extra million dollars left over, it goes right back into the farm in irrigation, trucks, or special projects like experimental harvesting equipment.

But Johannes says the operation pivots on a reliable source of Mexican laborers who work up to 10 hours daily through heat, cold, rain and fatigue.

"Without them we would shut down," he says.

Of more than 100 workers on the land this August morning, 32 are Mexicans. They are the stalwarts of market gardening in Canada and in the United States where giant vegetable farms stretch for more than 3,200 hectares, 10 times the size of the Itzke farmlands.

These short, swarthy, field-toughened Mexicans have been on the Itzke land since spring planting in March. Teofilo Jimenez Anzo, 43, comes from Guanajuato in northern Mexico. He has a wife and five children back home but he will stay until October earning about $9,000. Another Mexican, Castrilo Dimas, will take home $8,000. Their hourly rate is about $5.50 and they work from 130 to 140 hours, seven days a week.

Our photographer Stu Phillips, who speaks decent Spanish, asks if the work is tiring.

"Yes," he says, "the back, the legs."

Yet, compared to Canadian workers, Mexican durability is renowned, says Astrid Itzke, who is in the field every day though the family would prefer her to run the front office.

"I like to be in the fields," she says. "I know the product is going to the stores with the family name on it and I want to be right there to see it come out of the ground. And she works right along side the hired help. "I feel better that way, instead of being the boss," she says,

She does have a complaint that her father shares: too few Canadian field workers understand that the long hours on the farm are necessary.

"Some come for a few hours, while others work about two weeks. It's hard to count on them, but the Mexicans are here to work," she says.

Eric Johnson works for the federal government in Portage la Prairie recruiting farm labor. He says working in the vegetable fields (known as stoop labor) is the toughest form of labor there is, especially tying up cauliflower. He says the Mexicans are tough because they generally come from farm families.

"Manitoba workers wake up in the morning with an awfully stiff back after tying cauliflowers and they don't want to do it anymore; it's not for them," he says. "Mexicans are usually farm workers and they also have compulsory military service so they have had discipline."

Maria Merrithew, 19, of Warren, Manitoba, is among the youngest of Itzke's local workers. She is strong, compact, athletic-looking and strikingly blonde. Her hair has been bleached nearly white by the sun and it looks like corn silk in the bright midmorning light. She looks out of place next to the darker Mexicans in their muted work clothes. She is earning money the hard way. In a year of few jobs for students, she can earn her way to the University of Manitoba this fall to study Fine Arts. She is field, toughened by now, but she still feels the wear and tear.

"It gets you in the knees and the back," she says. "I'm used to hard work around home but after this I'm usually ready for bed by seven."

It's no wonder Johnson says the farm labor pool is reticent to work vegetables. This spring there were requests for 714 workers from the 1,000-member farm labor pool, says Johnson, and 691 positions were filled at farms of vegetable growers around Portage la Prairie, the main vegetable growing area in the province.

It's not surprising that all Portage la Prairie's major vegetable growers applied for Mexican workers through the federal government early in the year. Most had been in Canada before and usually on the same land. Growers using Mexicans include Connery's Riverdale Farm Ltd. (20 Mexicans); Jeffries Brothers Vegetable Growers (six); Mayfair Farms (six); Mosiewich Vegetable Farm (nine); and Bev's Market Produce at Morris, Manitoba (five).

Like the other farms, Itzke River Farm pays for the flights of the Mexicans and provides accommodation. They buy their own groceries and cook for themselves. It's a lonely sojourn for these workers who are mainly family men, and mail comes often from wives and children.

At night, if they have the energy, they play cards, listen to tapes of Mexican music and dream of home. They are here to better their lives materially. On the Itzke farm they make in one hour what would take 10 hours in the Mexican economy. When they leave they take back sewing machines, radios, clothes, chain saws, things that cost much more in Mexico.

These material things spur them to work under weather conditions in which 30, degree heat bakes the ground in the open fields. Sundays are work days too, though there is an attempt to make them days of rest, but, so far, there is no day of rest in these summer days when it's imperative the harvest be brought in. November's wind will blow the five o'clock whistle soon enough. The vegetables must come off or spoil.

So, hour after hour, sunrise to near sunset, the pickers on the Itzke farm walk behind the portable, circular conveyer belt as it feeds the canvas-roofed packing trailer, moving slowly ahead of them. In a single rhythmic motion they bend, cut the cauliflower with a trowel-like knife, separating the plants from the soil. A quick inspection of the plant's quality and they trim the outer leaves, place the plant on the conveyer again and again and again.

This hand picking is the heart of vegetable farming. The human body is a machine. The hands, the back, the legs. This is what the academics call `labor intensive.' It is as ancient as the story of food cultivation. While grain harvesting uses machinery, cabbage, cauliflower and celery are taken with a cutting knife by hand because human judgment in choosing the right ones for market is part of the job; machine picking would bruise the crop.

"The plants must be well-formed, of good weight and the right size for the supermarkets," Astrid says. The field is strewn with rejections.

TIED UP

One of the toughest jobs, she admits, is tying cauliflowers. To mature they must be closed with an elastic band, like a girl's pony, tailed hair. Astrid says it is the worst of all the jobs on the farm and it's done piece work as an incentive. She says the cauliflower itself is susceptible even when all care is taken.

"They're very sensitive to bruising and it can shorten their shelf life because of the dark patches it brings on," she says. "I don't like a cutter on my crew putting a hand on the face of the cauliflower."

LUNCH TIME

Near noon the picking teams pile into vans and head for the shade of the cooling sheds where they will eat lunch. Teo and his four companions leave the group and walk to a small two-bedroom house on the property. Other Mexicans are lodged in house-trailers around the farm. Lunch for Teo and his companions is tortillas, macaroni and boiled chicken. He offers us a tortilla, a fluffy pita-like circular bread, with a hot tomato and pepper sauce smeared on, then rolled.

Astrid Itzke goes off to nurse her two-month-old son after working in the field all morning. One gets the feeling she wants to be seen as pulling her weight, though it's not necessary. The Itzke work ethic has her back into the field with the pickers months after giving birth.

"We don't have to be here, she says. "We're here because of my dad." Many times her father asked that his children try something else in the world. But there is a quiet pride and allegiance to what their father has done.

"My father is the heart of all this," says Astrid. "We are the arms and legs and my mother is the banker." Heddy Itzke is a forthright supporter of her husband, who says she's not the family's banker. "I just pay the bills because they have to be paid," she says.

Astrid says her father's business acumen, after all these years, is the key to the farm's quality product. She says he knows what to pick, when to pick, what to sell, when to sell it and what to sell it for.

Johannes says the crop has to be sold when it's mature.

"You have to sell it. It can't be kept in a bin for three weeks; it has to be moved", he says. "Sometimes you're selling it at cost and other times at 100 per cent mark up."

Johannes says the product has to move because it's a summer crop. "Everything is sold before it comes out of the ground on a weekly basis. Our price depends on imports from California," he says. "We always have to stay below the imports."

He says small growers in Manitoba also affect the price.

"They always sell below our price but the quality isn't consistent."

Wholesalers can take their chances with the lower price and risk poor quality. None of the summer crops like Itzke's come under the marketing board system in Manitoba which is one reason he is in the summer crop business. "I want to be free," he says. "Marketing boards are unions."

To move his produce, he says you have to be known in the business.

"You have to have a good product to do business," he says.

He has, according to Hector Paquin, chief merchandiser for MacDonald's Consolidated Limited, the produce division of Canada Safeway.

"His product is so good our Vancouver operation is buying Itzke cauliflower because it's far better than what is grown on Vancouver Island," he says. "The product also goes into Minneapolis and the Toronto market."

Paquin says Itzke is very conscientious about his cauliflower.

"He goes into Safeway stores in Winnipeg and will ask the produce managers to remove his cauliflower from the shelf if it looks beat, en up," he says. "It's because his name is on it and he's proud."

If Itzke product doesn't hold up, the store has 48 hours to notify him and he'll replace it.

"He doesn't have to do that," says Paquin. "In a business where produce can die on you after you've bought it, that's something. I'd say his cauliflowers are the best in Canada."

It's no wonder, then, that Johannes Itzke's fields of long, green rows appear so perfect.
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Title Annotation:IRF-Itzke River Farm Ltd.
Author:Gage, Ritchie
Publication:Manitoba Business
Date:Nov 1, 1990
Words:2474
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