When about 500 growers and associates gather for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Potato Growers of Alberta on Nov 21-23 in Banff, Alberta, their main question will run something like this: How did you make out with the harvest?
In seed potato country, Jeff Ekkel, his father and siblings, from Lacombe were dealing with snow to get the final harvest in the bin. With 500 acres of seed potatoes safely stored in late October, they were still coping with canola in the swath, part of their 7,000 acres of rotation crops.
Sunnycrest Seed Potatoes Inc. has been growing seed potatoes since 2000, drawn to growth opportunities when Lamb Weston built a $130 million plant in Taber in 1999 followed by a $94 million McCain Foods plant near Coaldale in 2000. Those two plants spawned a new chapter in Alberta’s potato industry.
Not much has changed for French fry potato varieties – Russet Burbank is still the standby. But Ekkel says a newer variety out of the Pacific Northwest breeding program holds promise. It requires fewer inputs, needing only about 70 per cent of the normal amount of nitrogen.
“No variety is ever perfect under so many weather conditions,” says Ekkel. “Some will set well one year, and then not another under too much heat or too much rain.”
The challenge for the future, says Ekkel, is predicting what the market will look like in five years. At present, Alberta has 10,000 acres in seed production. The white-fleshed potato has reigned supreme for many years, but the European yellow-fleshed potatoes may gain traction with consumers. Taste is paramount.
“For our farm, the challenge is keeping up exports to the United States,” says Ekkel. “About 60 to 65 per cent of our seed potatoes go there.”
Potato cyst nematode closed the border for a number of years, but that issue has been resolved and Sunnycrest Seed Potatoes are back up to 500 acres.
Mark Miyanaga, Triple M Farms, is similarly optimistic about the future of his farm near Taber. He contracts 1,800 acres of potatoes to three processors: Cavendish in Lethbridge, McCain Canada in Coaldale and Lamb-Weston in Taber. His grandfather started the business which switched into processing potatoes in the late 1950s.
For him, the biggest change has been in technology. GPS-directed tractors and irrigation equipment that’s controlled by smartphones make it possible to farm large acreages. The size of machinery has evolved from two-row harvesters to some that are self-propelled.
“In 1986, I can remember my uncle running a harvest crew and thinking that 50 loads was a good day,” recalls Miyanaga. “Today, we’re doing 180 to 190 loads per day.”
Going forward, the biggest challenge is the uncertainty of Alberta’s provincial government in terms of labour regulations and carbon taxes. “We’ll see how that goes January 1,” says Miyanaga. “Farmers may be exempt from carbon taxes but a fuel tax will still impact suppliers and shipping. And a $1 per gigajoule increase in natural gas will affect urea production.”
“I’m optimistic about the future,” says Miyanaga. “One of the strengths of the Alberta industry is that we’re a bunch of tight-knit growers. Information flows freely.”
That’s heartening news for Ed Vandenberg, chair of the Potato Growers of Alberta. He farms tablestock and processing potatoes near Enchant under the name of Sun Vista Farms Ltd. As a first-generation potato farmer, he got into the business when the new plants put down roots in southern Alberta.
“The potato varieties are dictated by our customers,” says Vandenberg. “McDonalds has a major influence on which varieties we grow from the perspective of storability, colour and specific gravity.”
The challenge in the future is to grow in an environmentally sustainable way. The Alberta industry has been progressive from a food safety perspective, but now the challenge is to use even fewer inputs than is already the case.
From Vandenberg’s perspective, the future will be growth in processing potatoes. There are 40,000 acres at present.
“The advantage we have is access to irrigated land in southern Alberta,” says Vandenberg. The industry is well positioned. His own one-in-four rotation consists of potatoes, followed by hybrid canola, dry beans and finally wheat, but he says some farms have longer rotations.
In the latest Potato Growers of Alberta newsletter Terence Hochstein, executive director, says that most seed growers had excellent quality and yields in 2016. However russet growers in southern Alberta fared about average: “The russet crop in many cases experienced some early dying or in some cases, just plain ran out of groceries.”
If there’s one research challenge ahead it’s “early die” or verticillium wilt. “This disease is something that has kept our research community and chemical companies at bay for many years,” he writes. “Short rotations have often been thought to be a contributing factor to this disease, but it is becoming more and more prevalent in areas that have grown potatoes for many years, even areas that are on a four- or five-year rotation. Along with Phtophthora infestans – late blight – Verticillium Dahliae continue to be the two most common disease pressures facing our industry across the country.”
Fortunately, research capacity in Alberta’s potato industry has been significantly boosted with a $1 million investment in the University of Lethbridge. Starting January 2016 funds from Potato Growers of Alberta, McCain Foods, ConAgra Lamb Weston and Cavendish Farms established a chair in potato science. Dr. Dmytro Yevtushenko is now in that position.
Research under local conditions has always proven to be a winner. Expect to hear more from the Potato Growers of Alberta in the years to come.