Sweet potato uptake slower than expected

New, shorter season variety expected to displace imports over the long term, but this year’s launch was disappointing for its developer

This year was scheduled to be the launch of a new sweet potato variety in Canada.

The launch didn’t turn out quite as expected, as only a dozen acres were planted in 2019.

The variety, called Radiance, is a short-season sweet potato that matures in 118 to 122 days, making it suitable for many agricultural regions in Canada. This spring, the variety was planted in British Columbia, Quebec and Nova Scotia.

Valerio Primomo, the vegetable breeder who developed Radiance, is disappointed by this year’s acreage. But he and many others in Canada’s vegetable industry still believe it will change sweet potato production in Canada.

“This year was supposed to be our main launch but it didn’t work out like that. Nevertheless, it has been commercialized this year. I would say about 12 acres. We expected a lot more,” said Primomo, a research scientist at the Vineland Research & Innovation Centre, near St. Catharines, Ont.

Sweet potatoes are already grown in Canada, on about 2,000 acres in Ontario and maybe 50 acres in Nova Scotia. Varieties come from the United States and require more than 130 days to reach maturity. Even with that production Canada imports about $60 million worth of sweet potatoes annually.

“That was the whole plan (behind Radiance) … to offset our imports from the U.S.” Primomo said.

Experimental production has shown that Radiance is a high quality sweet potato, with the orange colour and taste that consumers expect.

Primomo wasn’t expecting thousands of acres this year, but hundreds of acres were likely the goal for 2019.

The launch didn’t meet expectations because there was a lack of slips.

Sweet potatoes are distinct from other crops because growers plant slips, which are unrooted vine cuttings.

The slips must be mass produced because tens of millions of slips are needed for a relatively small acreage. To supply the 2,000 acres grown in Ontario, growers import about 24 million slips from the U.S.

Canada doesn’t have a slip production industry because it’s too cold, even in southern Ontario.

An Ontario greenhouse company did produce Radiance slips in 2018 and 2019, but only enough for a tiny number of acres.

“They did it this year and they grew out whatever they could,” Primomo said.

Vegetable growers in provinces like Manitoba were hoping to grow Radiance sweet potatoes this year, but they couldn’t acquire any slips.

“There is lots of interest from the growers,” said Tracy Shinners Carnelley, a vice-president with Peak of the Market in Manitoba. “This variety has the potential, but like any new crop … there come some challenges with going through the commercialization process.”

Primomo has decided, for next year, that slips for Radiance will be grown outdoors in North Carolina or another southern state.

He created Radiance in collaboration with scientists at Louisiana State University, so that relationship should help with slip production in the U.S.

Looking ahead to 2020, Primomo is confident that production will be much larger than a dozen acres. In the long run, it will take time before Canada becomes self-sufficient in sweet potato production.

“There is a big demand for it and we’re hoping to fill that demand,” he said. “It will eventually offset imports. How long it will take, I don’t know.”

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