Potato yields not expected to hit record again

Acreage increased in Manitoba and Alberta this year, but prairie growers are not expecting production to follow suit

The potato acreage may have increased this year in Western Canada, but it doesn’t look like it will be the same for yields.

“I think overall, it’s too early to tell because we haven’t started the main harvest, but we are not expecting as big of yield as the last couple of years,” said Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association.

Manitoba producers planted 64,100 acres of potatoes this year, up about 1,200 acres from the previous year, according to Statistics Canada. Alberta producers planted 55,410 acres, up about 1,800 acres from 2017. Behind Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and Alberta are the top potato producing provinces.

Acreage rose on the Prairies this year due to processors increasing their contract sizes. Processing plants in Manitoba and Alberta are currently working on increasing processing capacity.

Simplot is working on an expansion of its Portage la Prairie, Man., plant. The expansion is scheduled to come online in December, 2019. Cavendish Farms is constructing a new plant in Lethbridge, which is expected to open in fall 2019.

Alberta acreage increased substantially because of an increase in seed potatoes in northern Alberta and the new processing capacity expected for next year.

“We sell a fair amount of seed to Manitoba. Our growers are just ramping up (production of) the seed a couple of years before it’s needed,” said Terence Hochstein, executive director of Potato Growers of Alberta, adding Alberta growers also sell a lot of seed potatoes to the United States, where the market has been steadily growing.

While acreage increased this year, it doesn’t look likely that yields will follow. For the last few years, potato yields have risen in Manitoba and Alberta, hitting record highs each year.

Last year, Manitoba potatoes had a yield of 353.5 hundredweight per acre, up from 350 cwt. per acre in 2016, according to Statistics Canada.

Alberta potatoes hit a yield of 390.7 cwt. per acre in 2017, up from 388 cwt. per acre the previous year.

However, due to hot, dry weather this summer, those yields likely won’t be matched this year.

“(It’s) early as far as really knowing what we might end up with here. The crop might surprise us. But at this point because the set is down, I’m expecting the crop will be a little bit lighter than last year,” Sawatzky said.

While potato crops grown for processing in Manitoba and southern Alberta are irrigated, the hot weather still affected them. According to Sawatzky, when it gets too hot outside, the potato plant will “shut down” and stop growing.

“We’ve had a little bit of heat runners. So that means the plants are dropping some tubers and pushing heat runners out. And little tubers attach to those heat runners, which detract from yield,” he said.

In Alberta, the story is much the same. The irrigated potatoes in the southern portion of the province will fare much the same as their Manitoba counterparts, while the non-irrigated seed potatoes in northern Alberta will take a harder hit due to the heat.

“(So far the potatoes are looking) very good (in Alberta). (I) have no yield numbers because we’re too early in. But I’m going to say at this point in time we’re probably going to have an average crop,” Hochstein said.

Manitoba and Alberta producers are currently in the direct harvest portion of the potato harvest, which means the potatoes are dug and taken directly for processing. The main harvest, which is where the potatoes are stored, won’t start until about the middle of September in Manitoba, while in Alberta it should start the second week of September.

“The early crop for the most part (in Manitoba) is coming off as an average, pretty good quality, decent size,” Sawatzky said.

Harvest should wrap up by the start of October in both provinces.

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