PGA history: when spuds and golf got into a mash

TABER, Alta. — In this part of the world, PGA stands for Potato Growers of Alberta. In the wider world, especially that of sports, PGA stands for something vastly different.

That’s why Alberta potato growers found themselves in negotiation with the Professional Golfers Association in 1996.

“Who knew what a domain name was back then,” said PGA (the potato organization) executive director Terence Hochstein.

But the potato group was alert to the possibilities, so it secured the www.pga.com web address before the golfers did.

An obsolete golf club called a mashie — and French fries served in golf clubhouses all over North America — were probably the closest connections that the PGA (the golfers) had with the PGA (the potato growers.)

Writing from the Avenue of the Champions in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, in May 1996, PGA program manager Jon K. Colclasure wrote to PGA controller Glenn Hurst to make a deal.

“We would like to use the domain name noted above and believe the Potato Growers of Alberta would benefit from using a domain name that is not confused with the PGA of America,” wrote Colclasure.

But Hurst and growers didn’t make a quick assent. Two months later, the growers agreed to relinquish pga.com for $34,000 — $20,000 for the name and the rest for expenses in the switch to www.potatonet.com.

Ever practical, the growers quickly earmarked the money for re-search into potato starch.

In hindsight, the price seems low, said Hochstein, but the value of a web address wasn’t well understood at the time.

That story is one of hundreds in the Potato Growers of Alberta history book published in October, which spans the organization’s “50 years of working and growing together.”

Historical data, photos and stories from potato growers themselves are included.

PGA financial administrator Wendy McDonald and communication co-ordinator Deb Brewin are the drivers behind the 408-page hardcover book.

“It started as a cookbook. Through the years, the association had done a number of cookbooks, and it had been 18 years, so we thought we would do another cookbook to celebrate the 50th,” said McDonald.

The board had other ideas. Yes, they would support a cookbook, but a history book should come first, they said.

There were “mounds and mounds” of boxed material amassed over the years, including meeting minutes, financial reports, newspaper clippings, old newsletters, slides and photos.

“There was no organization, really, in the boxes,” said Brewin.

“It was a huge undertaking just to go through the boxes and see what was in there and see what needed to be purged and see what needed to be kept for our own archives.”

In addition to that material, the two asked past and present potato growers for their histories, aiming to include at least 100 of them in the book. About 88 complied, and their stories and photos make for interesting reading about early hardships, immigration and, for some, internment during the Second World War.

The book documents the early days of growing potatoes in Alberta, when they were considered a market garden crop. Today, some 45,000 acres of potatoes are grown in the province, which is home to major processing plants.

“We were gearing towards 200 pages and when we were getting going, I thought we might not make it,” Brewin said.

“But the more we dug into the boxes and the pictures, the more we found. Articles, information that needed to be included. So deadlines got extended.”

She and McDonald said perusal of all the historical data was time consuming but entertaining.

“It’s so interesting. And that’s the purpose of a history book. You don’t read it from front to back. You just flip it open,” said McDonald.

Added Brewin: “Some of the growers’ stories, you’d sit back and just giggle. They’re very transparent. I was really humbled to read about the hardships that a lot of these growers went through, back in the 1940s. They didn’t have machinery. A lot of it was horse-drawn and hand-built implements.

“Those humble beginnings were probably what I remember most.

“This isn’t your average history book. There’s so much more than just stories. There’s authentic, original documents that come from the people that were on the commission at the time.”

The book spans the period from 1966 to 2016, with a smattering of information from earlier days. The growers have had several name and structural changes over the years, going from the Alberta Potato Growers Association to the Alberta Potato Commission to its current Potato Growers of Alberta moniker.

The name of its newsletter has also evolved, from the Spud Note to the Tater Times to the Common-Tater, and finally to today’s Potato Minute.

The PGA took delivery of 1,000 copies of the book. Few growers had picked up their copies as of mid-October — half were pre-sold — so feedback on the project has been minimal so far.

“Not every industry has an opportunity to go back into the past 50 years and still have people around to talk about it,” said Hochstein. “It’s a tremendous read. It’s not necessarily a history book. It’s a story book about the last 50 years of our industry.”

As for the recipe book, McDonald and Brewin said a 253-page volume is already at the printers.

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