Organic potato farmers find eager markets

WINSLOE, Prince Edward Island — The red fields of Prince Edward Island are renowned for growing potatoes.

Fred Dollar’s decision to grow organic potatoes is built on that reputation.

Located just northeast of Charlottetown in the community of Winsloe, the Dollar family operation has gone through many changes since it started in 1915. The farm was a dairy operation until the decision to sell the cows and the milk quota 15 years ago.

A friend had some organic certified land and suggested Fred try growing five acres of potatoes.

“I said, ‘what the hell. Why not?” said Fred, who works on the farm with with his wife, Vaunda, and son, Kent.

Today the farm is producing at capacity, supplying fresh potatoes in five pound bags bearing the Kentdale label.

The bags are sold in Sobey’s and Superstore in the Atlantic region with revenues exceeding $2 million a year. It’s one of a handful of organic potato operations in the province.

The farm obtained organic certification in 2001 with the Maritime Certified Organic Growers.

Since 2003, the operation has been certified with the Organic Crop Producers and Processors based in Ontario.

As demand grew for their potatoes, the family built their own packing and cold storage facility on the farm.

They grow round whites, red skinned, yellow fleshed and Russetts.

The 2014 season has brought tricky weather, first with a cold, wet spring that delayed planting and now a dry summer.

Since the Dollars don’t irrigate, the farm requires about an inch of rain per week.

In July, the farm had received about half of what was needed. Conditions have improved in August, but the Dollars are also fighting wireworms and potato beetles.

They use an organic, clay-based spray to control insect pests. Fred said he would like the Pest Management Review Agency to approve more products that are already available in the United States.

“It works, but once you use a product so many times (the insects) get immune to it,” Fred said.

Provincial legislation requires a minimum three-year rotation on a potato farm. The Dollars’ rotation includes non-GM soybeans, organic milling wheat, barley and clover. The clover is plowed down every couple years to rebuild fertility. They also use fish fertilizer that is applied before seeding and at lower rates during the growing season.

Fred and Kent handle most of the work, but when it’s time to start bagging potatoes at least five workers are needed. So far, the family has been able to find local workers.

“Our help is all part time. We probably run anywhere from two to three days maximum a week to pack,” he said.

Cull potatoes either go to a local beef producer or to a dehydration plant at Souris.

Marketing has been almost effortless. They only sell to the retail market and have not been involved in the restaurant trade.

“I have never had to do it because we never had any problem getting rid of our potatoes for the last 10 years. I don’t even get on the phone looking,” he said.

The first commitment is to grocers.

“They would like us to supply them 12 months of the year, but that is not possible,” he said.

Grocers would also like perfectly sized potatoes.

“In an ideal world, if we could produce a six to eight ounce potato for our packing that would be perfect, but that is not realistic,” he said.

A variation of two to 12 ounces each is closer to reality.

Being organic does not guarantee a solid profit every year.

“Two years ago, the wireworms ate half of a 25 acre field,” Kent said.

Even as organic farmers, the Dollars can’t spray when winds exceed 20 kilometres per hour. The family lives in an urban-rural community and know the public is watching.

The fields are cultivated to control weeds, but this year was very dry. Tillage disturbed the soil too much, so the Dollars entered the fields less. The fields are consequently weedier than normal. Harvest starts around the beginning of October and should be done by Thanksgiving. The trash is left behind. They may also spread hay on the fields to prevent erosion after harvest.

Careful management is required for diseases like blight, which can leave spores behind in the crop residue. There are organic sprays for blight and the Dollars haven’t had problems so far.

“You have to do it or you won’t be in business. Blight is a community problem. If blight comes in it will carry on the wind for miles,” Fred said.

“All it takes is one guy who is not good at what he is doing and it spreads everywhere,” he said.

The next stage is passing on the farm. The area was settled in the 1880s and Fred has been farming for 43 years. Kent will be the next generation.

“The land was here for me so it seems right that he wants it,” said Fred.

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