Sask. co-ops eager to expand local produce

OUTLOOK, Sask. — The news that Saskatchewan co-ops intend to buy more than one million pounds of locally produced vegetables this year is a sign growers are on the right track, says vegetable specialist Connie Achtymichuk.

However, there is still a lot of room for growth, she said during a Canada Saskatchewan Irrigation Diversification Centre field day.

Sixteen growers who make up Prairie Fresh Food Corp. sold 750,000 pounds of produce to Federated Co-operatives Ltd. last year, which was the first year of the Grown at Home initiative. This year FCL announced it wants 1.25 million lb.

The move will take Prairie Fresh production from 15 products on 80 acres last year to 22 products grown on 250 acres this year.

Radishes, rhubarb, baby carrots, dill, cucumbers, beets and kohlrabi were all expected in the 114 Sask-atchewan Co-op food stores by the end of July. The growers also produce sweet corn, yellow and green beans, baby beets, cauliflower, carrots, garlic, creamer potatoes, wheat, lentils, kale, zucchini, onions, strawberries and saskatoon berries.

Achtymichuk said Prairie Fresh members have done a good job of increasing acres, investing in equipment and getting their products to the stores.

However, potatoes dominate the vegetable industry. Of the 8,000 acres sown to vegetables last year, half were for table potatoes, 3,000 were for seed potatoes and the remaining 1,000 acres were mixed vegetables.

The total value of that production is $43 million, but drops to $2 million when potatoes aren’t included.

Achtymichuk said the values in Alberta and Manitoba, not including potatoes, are $30 million and $32 million, respectively.

“We’ve got some room to move here,” she said.

The Saskatchewan Irrigation Projects Association released a study this month that noted the potential for high-volume vegetable production under irrigation.

The study said the province imports $26 million worth of vegetables a year, not including potatoes.

The 1,000 acres of domestic vegetable production meets just 10 percent of in-season demand.

“This is low in comparison to Sask-atchewan’s neighbours, Alberta and Manitoba, who are at 33 percent and 57 percent, respectively,” the study said.

A short-term goal of 20 percent self-sufficiency would require 12,000 acres of irrigable land.

SIPA estimates that irrigation out of Lake Diefenbaker could support 500,000 acres for all crop production if fully tapped. Self-sufficiency in vegetable production would require 50,000 acres of irrigable land on top of the current 110,000 acres.

“Without some major infrastructure put in place, I just don’t see us getting there very quickly,” said SIPA chair Roger Pederson.

“Obviously every few acres that we put in gives people that choice for local produce.”

He said some farmers will likely incorporate vegetables into rotations as irrigation expands. Even more importantly, he believes that a larger irrigation area would draw vegetable expertise to the province.

The SIPA study recommended a benchmark study to build confidence and strengthen the industry, establishing commercial cost of production for specific vegetables, a research strategy to increase competitiveness, seed research and production strategies with private and public partners, regional and niche opportunities in food service and value added, and incoming and outgoing trade missions to promote the industry.

Pederson said the study hasn’t yet been released in its entirety because of business sensitivities.

Meanwhile, Prairie Fresh will continue to serve up its home-grown vegetables in local stores.

The availability is dependent upon weather and supply, but FCL is committed to the program.

“The success of our Grown at Home initiative last year proves our members and customers have an appetite for high-quality, fresh and local products,” said Ron Welke, vice-president of food.

“As a result, we’re expanding this initiative, making more Saskatchewan produce available and helping to grow the province’s horticulture sector.”

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