Peter VanderZaag, an expert potato grower, recently received China’s prestigious Friendship Award from premier Li Keqiang. The award is the nation’s highest honor for achievement by a foreign expert who has made outstanding contributions to China’s economic and social progress. VanderZaag and his family farm about 1,000 acres on their Sunrise Potato Farm near Alliston, Ontario.
VanderZaag’s international development work dates back to 1972, when he worked as a volunteer with Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (now World Renew) in Bangladesh, helping to improve the potato production of farmers there. After pursuing graduate studies in Hawaii, he joined the International Potato Centre (CIP) in 1979. He worked with potato farmers in four African countries. VanderZaag and his family moved to the Philippines in 1982 to work for CIP in Southeast Asia. Three years later, VanderZaag opened an International Agricultural Research Center in China.
At that time China was just opening the door to the outside world. Chinese scientists were eager to learn new technologies, evaluate new potato genetic materials, and enroll in the educational programs offered by CIP. Since then, Chinese farmers have tripled the land base devoted to potato production, and yields per hectare have more than doubled. China now produces almost 25 percent of the world’s potato crop.
In his award acceptance speech, VanderZaag commended his fellow farmers. “In the 1980s farmers lived in poverty and struggled to survive. My desire was to see them have better lives for their families. That has come true!” he said. “I have a special kinship with the farmers of Yunnan. They are my brothers and sisters in producing food for themselves and the great cities of our world.”
VanderZaag is a member of the Alliston Christian Reformed Church.