Alberta farm family takes on the sweet potato

Jordan Lessner and his son Sawyer assist Kaitlyn Tancowny bed sweet potatoes in the greenhouse at Alberta Sweet Potatoes this past spring. | Alberta Sweet Potatoes photo

On the Farm: Grain and livestock producers saw an opportunity to supply an emerging market with sweet potato slips

With almost 10,000 acres of native pasture, 2,500 acres of irrigated grain land, 1,000 cow-calf pairs including a purebred Charolais herd, and a custom feedlot, one farming dynasty in southeastern Alberta seems to have a lot on their plate.

But the operators hope to build more. They’re developing a new industry in the province — sweet potatoes — and they are Western Canada’s first commercial sweet potato slip propagation facility.

Located near Jenner, Alta., Alberta Sweet Potatoes is led by grower Stephanie Lessner and her parents Marjorie and James Larson.

Experienced livestock and grain farmers, this family team identified the need in the Canadian Prairies for sweet potato slips and realized how uniquely positioned they are to supply this emerging market.

This year, the operation propagated the Radiance variety of sweet potatoes in a farmer-owned natural gas well-heated greenhouse.

They sold about 6,000 slips to farmers and some home gardeners, and planted about 15,000 slips themselves on 0.75 acres. With expected increased demand from western Canadian growers, plans are in place to expand production in coming years.

“We wanted to diversify and expand our farming operation without expanding the land base,” said Lessner. “We had been looking into greenhouse crops to utilize our natural gas wells in the winter months when the gas is not needed for pumping units to irrigate our crops. We came across Radiance sweet potatoes with a shorter growing season, developed through Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario. We believe this is our chance to expand and diversify our operation while providing the same opportunity for diversification in crops to farmers throughout Western Canada.”

Consumption of sweet potatoes in Canada has doubled over the past 10 years, and with 66,000 tonnes of sweet potatoes coming from the United States annually, there’s an opportunity for Canadian grown sweet potatoes.

Almost all Canadian sweet potato production occurs in Ontario, which accounts for about 2,000 acres. In the past few years, production has expanded to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

The variety of sweet potato Lessner grows, Radiance, is a new variety with a shorter growing season, adapted for Canadian climates. Despite its fit for southeastern Alberta weather, the challenge to grow the crop here was daunting.

Sweet potatoes were dug up in the field in August. | Alberta Sweet Potatoes photo

“There is limited information and support in Canada for sweet potato production,” said Lessner.

“U.S. and eastern Canadian farmers are eager to discuss their practices, but with different growing conditions and registered pesticide and herbicide products available to them, there are some substantial differences in our operation to theirs.

“Another challenge is greenhouse operation. None of us had greenhouse experience and there are some areas that are quite different when comparing growing crops in a field and in a greenhouse,” she added. “We’ve learned a lot this year and relied on the Alberta Greenhouse Growers Association consultants for guidance throughout the season.”

Southeastern Alberta is known for its high irrigation, sandy soil and accessibility to potato processing plants, so it seemed the perfect fit for the sweet potato operation. And despite a challenging year weather-wise, the sweet potatoes planted on the ranch were thriving as of early August.

The most pressing problem for the operation was the deer.

“Deer are definitely a concern, so we fenced the field with livestock panels in the beginning and now have an electric fence around the field to deter them,” said Lessner. “As for weed control, we planted the sweet potato slips into black plastic mulch beds and manually weeded between the beds. There are currently no registered herbicides or pesticides for sweet potatoes in Alberta. Bugs haven’t been a problem yet but as acres grow that may change.”

The whole point of the operation, according to Lessner, is to propagate and sell sweet potato slips to Canadian commercial growers and greenhouses. This year, the slips that were propagated in the greenhouse were supplied to customers in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, as well as potential commercial growers in Alberta who currently grow potatoes, as well as to a few greenhouse operations in Alberta.

“We sold to home gardeners throughout Canada this year, too, but home gardeners are not a part of our long-term plan, as we anticipate commercial sweet potato acres to grow along with the demand for larger volumes of slips,” said Lessner.

Stephanie Lessner says the farm sold about 6,000 slips this year to farmers and home gardeners. The remainder were planted on their own land. | Janet Kanters photo

Once all the slips they sold were shipped, Lessner, with the help of her extended family including her husband and children, her two brothers and their spouses, and her parents, seeded the remaining sweet potato slips.

They don’t yet have a market for the sweet potatoes, but this year’s harvest will be used for propagation of next year’s slip production.

The crop was planted after spring frost this year, between June 1 and June 15. The ideal time to plant is between May 15 and June 15.

Radiance is a 110-day variety, so harvest is expected to start the last week of September. However, Mother Nature and fall frost risks may move harvest up, said Lessner.

Sweet potatoes are harvested the same as regular potatoes, but sweet potatoes’ skin is more delicate than a regular potato. Most sweet potato harvesters have rubber coated belts to minimize the damage on the skin.

Following harvest, sweet potatoes go into storage for two weeks to cure with the use of heat and high humidity. According to Lessner, this allows the tuber to convert the starch to sugar.

“Without curing, the sweet potato doesn’t have its sweet flavour,” said Lessner. “Once they have been cured, they can be sold for eating. Ours will remain in storage until early 2022 when they are bedded in the greenhouse to produce slips.”

The sweet potato operation is a family affair on the ranch. “Everyone does what is needed when needed. My brothers, husband and father built our greenhouse this past winter, helped with cutting slips in the greenhouse and planting in the field,” said Lessner.

“My children eagerly helped bed the sweet potatoes into the greenhouse and count slips for packing. My mother, brothers’ spouses and myself took care of daily greenhouse tasks, such as watering, cutting slips, packing orders and planting. Our roles all overlap to get the tasks done as quickly and effectively as possible.”

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