Prairie potato yields continue to rise

Manitoba yields have risen steadily over the past five years and the hope is to compete with Washington and Idaho

Potato storage sheds in Manitoba are full, thanks to blockbuster yields this fall.

In fact, yields were so large that a portion of Manitoba’s potato crop is still in the ground.

“Some people had yields they were just not anticipating,” said Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association. “They ran out of storage space.”

Consequently, about 1,300 acres of potatoes weren’t harvested this year in Manitoba out of 65,000 total acres.

The average yield in the province was 350 hundredweight per acre, based on Statistics Canada estimates. Sawatzky said the figure is a bit high but in the ballpark.

Assuming the estimate of 350 cwt. per acre is accurate, Manitoba growers will have shattered a record of 323 cwt. set last year.

Manitoba potato yields have climbed steadily over the last five to seven years from 280 cwt. per acre to 350 cwt. this year, an increase of about 25 percent.

The gains are positive news for the province’s potato industry, which competes against regions in the United States such as Idaho and Washington state, where yields often top 500 cwt. per acre.

“Growers are targeting higher yields, intentionally, to try and reduce acreage,” Sawatzky said.

“It’s certainly a good news story to see that yields are moving up.”

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The strong yields are positive, but Manitoba will likely have an excess of potatoes next year.

Most of Manitoba’s potato crop is sold to Simplot’s french fry processing plant in Portage la Prairie and McCain Foods’ plants in Carberry and Portage.

Sawatzky said the companies are doing what they can to eat through Manitoba’s massive crop. Still, growers will probably need to find other markets for excess potatoes.

Processing plants in North Dakota and Minnesota might need potatoes sometime next year, but such demand is difficult to predict.

Robust yields in Manitoba were the exception this year in Canada. Yields in Alberta and Prince Edward Island were closer to expectations.

“We were short on heat units and sunshine this year,” said Terence Hochstein, Potato Growers of Alberta executive director.

Yields were still respectable. Statistics Canada said the average yield in Alberta was 388 cwt. per acre, up from 384 cwt. last year.

National yields were also slightly higher. Canada’s average potato yield was 307 cwt. per acre, up from 305 cwt. in 2015.

The yield gains were small, but Alberta growers have been on a path similar to Manitoba. Alberta potato yields were in the low 300s and are now creeping closer to 400 cwt. per acre.

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“Our long-term goal is to be able to compete with Washington and Idaho,” Hochstein said.

“That’s the potato-growing hotbed of North America.”

The demand side of the potato market also looks encouraging for Canada’s potato industry.

It was a difficult year for potato growers in Europe, and production is down, which could boost global demand for frozen potato products from Canada.

“Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain and France — those are the five big ones,” said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada.

“Their production is down … about 16.8 million cwt., less than the 2015 crop. That’s pretty significant information.”

Europe’s potato processing industry was gearing up to handle more potatoes this year, but increased production now looks unlikely, MacIsaac said.

“That will be an opportunity for North American potatoes.”

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