What does raw ambition taste like? That’s a question for potato growers Duane Holm and partners Jacco and Alisa de Lange who have formed Sauble Creek Seed Company in an unlikely place: Southampton, Ontario.
It’s isolated. The area is known more for its summer tourists and pastoral scenes of grazing beef cattle than horticulture. Yet, the beacon for this venture is Lake Huron. That wall of water is a coveted advantage for those seeking distance from insect vectors of disease. The deal-maker is that the farm site of 250 acres has sandy loam soils.
“It’s hard to believe that just a year ago, we decided to make this pipe dream a reality,” says Jacco de Lange. “We did not cut any corners in building a state-of-the-art storage facility. From the agronomy side, we are very encouraged to expand the seed potato business in Ontario.”
That’s moxie. Ontario is the source for only 1.4 per cent of Canada’s seed potatoes as reported by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in October, 2020. (see chart, page 3) Seed acreage is expanding in northern Ontario, notes Eugenia Banks, consultant to the Ontario Potato Board. Young growers see an opportunity to produce vigorous, healthy seed. A new website that includes all Ontario seed growers – www.OSPGA.ca – is also stimulating more dialogue with growers outside the province.
That said, Prince Edward Island dominates the seed sector with almost 30 per cent of the hectarage. Alberta has heft with 22 per cent, so together, these two provinces account for more than half of the sector.
Shifts in source
As statistics show, Canadian seed potato hectarage has not shifted much in the last five years, but the source of seed has. Alberta’s share of the market is growing, driven by the recent expansion of the Cavendish Farms potato processing plant near Lethbridge. It's vertically integrated processors who are dictating what seed varieties do best in their plants. McCains, Lamb Weston and Simplot all designate their choices to contracted growers.
“Russet Burbank is the number one seed variety by volume,” explains Kevin MacIsaac, general manager, United Potato Growers of Canada. “It is not the best variety agronomically, but it has good colour and it fries well.”
This seed variety can withstand weather challenges, and it has dual end use as either a tablestock or French fry. That’s why Russet Burbank is the seed of choice, followed closely by Goldrush.
“It’s not a fast-moving track to improve potatoes in Canada,” explains MacIsaac. “There’s risk in the industry coming out too soon with a variety that can’t withstand drought or a variety that doesn’t store well. There could be more promising varieties in Europe or the United States, but they must be grown in our climate.”
Shifts in climate
The two Canadian coasts are bearing the brunt of extreme weather. Just two harvests ago, Prince Edward Island was mired in muddy fields, taking the brunt of history-breaking rains. Along with Nova Scotia, these maritime provinces are subject to the nasty tail-ends of hurricanes hurling up the eastern seaboard. On the western coast, the 2021 heat dome devastated not only British Columbia but the prairies.
“Potato seed will be in short supply in North America in 2022, because of the effects of the heat dome,” says Bill Zylmans, chair of the Canadian Potato Council, based in Delta, BC. “Those record-breaking temperatures affected Idaho, Oregon and some of my customers in Washington state. There were temperatures well over 40°C. Holy cow!”
With these whirlwinds of climatic change, it’s not such a leap of faith to build new seed storage facilities in Ontario.
“We need seed security,” says Duane Holm. For the last 20 years, he’s been growing fresh potatoes and in the last five years, seed varieties such as AC Chaleur, Clearwater Russet, Dakota Pearl, Dark Red Norland and Yukon Gold.
“A lot of big companies want to spread risk and know that quality seed can be sourced from various geographies,” Holm points out.
His partner Jacco de Lange echoes those concerns.
“In Ontario, growers pay a high cost to transport seed from North Dakota and Wisconsin,” he explains. “It costs $8 per 100 lb of seed and if a grower is planting 2,200 pounds per acre for the Frito-Lay chip processor, that input is costing $160 per acre.”
More than half of Ontario’s potato acreage is devoted to the end use of chips, not French fries. So seed variety requirements and agronomics are different. Chipstock potatoes require closer plant spacings of about six inches apart, in order to produce smaller-sized potatoes and higher tonnage per acre.
Shifts in client needs
De Lange is bringing an agronomy perspective to the enterprise, as a consultant to the North American clients of CanGrow Crop Solutions. With more emphasis on micronutrients, just enough at the right time, he’s looking for more tubers per plant and a more consistent size profile.
“That’s where the next agronomic opportunity lies,” explains de Lange. “We are sizing the seed as it is harvested so that we can supply single-drop seed to our customers.”
Single-drop seed – weighing 2.5 ounces – is desirable to potato growers who don’t have to cut the seed and risk disease infection.
It’s easy to grow potatoes, but it’s more work to sell them. For Sauble Creek Seed Company, the first-year risk was getting a storage facility built on time. Crop was coming off in October as the electrician was installing hydro.
Fortunately, one factor was in their favour. The entire lineup of seed was sold to brokers before it was sown in the ground. The first year of operation was marked by salty sweat, and in the end, sweet reward.
Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes 'Behind the Scenes' of the November 2021 cover story and speaks with Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada. They discuss how the entire North American trade is adjusting to tectonic shifts in consumer demand, shifts in climate and shifts in seed sources. Surprisingly, some growers are responding by building more capacity. Listen here >>