Manitoba potato processors look south for spuds

Small harvest | Manitoba’s 2011 harvest was down 8.5 percent from the previous year

A smaller potato crop in Manitoba last year may force processors to import from outside the province or move processing to other parts of North America.

Garry Sloik, executive director of the Keystone Vegetable Producers Association, said there is no immediate risk of running out of potatoes, but the Simplot plant in Portage la Prairie and the McCain Foods plant in Carberry will need to bring in potatoes from Idaho and Washington state if they want to make french fries this summer.

“We will not run out of potatoes until June sometime,” said Sloik.

“It’s just a matter of whether they (the processors) want to run the plant directly from outside potatoes later on or whether they want to slowly add some (potatoes) throughout the year.”

The Manitoba plants are short of spuds because production in the province was 17.5 million hundredweight last year, down 8.5 percent from the 19 million cwt. produced in 2010.

Potato acreage was 73,000 last year, up from 70,000 acres in 2010. However, yields were 250 cwt. per acre in 2011 compared to 280 per cwt. in 2010.

Sloik said a combination of factors caused yields to drop, including an extremely hot and dry summer, a wet spring that pushed back seeding dates, flooding along the Assiniboine River that restricted access to irrigation water and a frost that hit the province Sept. 16-17.

“At the tail end of September is when Russet Burbanks are bulking quite heavily,” he said.

“So if you take two weeks off (the growing season), that also kept our yields down.”

The Simplot and McCain processing plants can’t buy extra potatoes in the province because they contract all of the Russet Burbank spuds in Manitoba.

In other regions, plants are able to buy extra potatoes because Russet Burbanks are also grown for the table market.

In Manitoba, red potatoes are grown for table consumption.

Sloik said the Manitoba processors might choose to import potatoes from Idaho and Washington state later this year because of transport costs.

Trucking potatoes in the winter is more expensive because they are moved in closed, heated and insulated trailers. In the summer they can be trucked in open trailers.

Simplot plant manager Chris Tompkins told Portage Online, a news website, that the shortage is already affecting plant operations. For instance, shutdowns for maintenance have been extended by a few days.

A Simplot spokesperson told the Winnipeg Free Press the company is making plans to scale back production at its Portage plant and shift the work to plants in the American Northwest.

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