Heat leaves prairie potato growers on edge

Many prairie potato growers have a good crop in the field, but need frost and excessive rain to stay away until it can be harvested. | File photo

Producers across Western Canada are optimistic they can still produce a good crop this fall if the weather co-operates

It’s been a reversal of fortunes for Canada’s potato growers this year as last year’s dry season in the East moves west.

However, with help from Mother Nature, western growers might still be able to get good yields.

“The crop looks decent,” said Chad Berry, president of the Keystone Potato Producers Association. “We just need some average weather. Just nice cool nights and some decent days and not a lot of big rains anymore. We’ve had a couple of big rains the last little bit here so guys are a little nervous to harvest.”

That doesn’t mean all Manitoba growers have escaped the heat that has plagued producers across the West, especially those farming on dryland.

“They’re having trouble getting some water and they’ve had to abandon some fields,” said Berry.

Alberta is also hoping to get some help on the weather front to salvage a good spud crop this year, said Terence Hochstein, Potato Growers of Alberta executive director.

“They are there now, although very small, so we just need some time for them to mature and to grow. As long as we have a good open fall and no frost, we’ll get a semblance of a crop,” said Hochstein. “If we get an early frost, we’ll get a very poor harvest.”

The heat in late June, early July in the southern Alberta hotbed of potato farms affected growth and exposed fields to even hotter temperatures without ground cover.

Even when ground cover was recouped, “with the extreme heat we could not get the water on quick enough,” said Hochstein.

Kevin MacIsaac, United Potato Growers of Canada general manager, said this year’s harvest outlook nationally is the opposite of last year’s yields with eastern producers struggling with weather.

“We had probably not the kind of outlook we’d like to have in Western Canada in the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and to a lesser extent, in B.C.,” said MacIssac. “Then when you come to the eastern provinces, P.E.I, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario, you have pretty decent looking crops.”

It’s a circumstance that processors will be closely monitoring going into harvest season, particularly in Manitoba and Alberta.

“Processors are watching the situation in terms of the weather in those two provinces and they may be looking at moving potatoes from elsewhere, perhaps from Eastern Canada, to fill some of that void,” said MacIsaac.

Western U.S. potato growers are also facing the same challenges as their northern neighbours.

“The situation is also pretty dry in the Columbia Basin in Washington and also in Idaho. It remains to be seen yet as to what the additional volume would be there to be imported into our country,” said MacIsaac.

It’s a frustrating situation for growers in Alberta in a year that was set to see growth in production.

“This year’s planting season, we actually planted more acres than ever in Alberta,” said Hochstein. “The demand was there in all avenues. We planted more chip, more seed, more fresh (potatoes), more processing. But given the environmental situation in terms of weather, we’re still going to come up short.”

MacIsaac said the Canadian potato industry needs growth as restaurants reopen and demand increases post-COVID.

Both MacIsaac and Hochstein said the effects of the pandemic and a fourth wave could still affect demand for spuds.

But if large sporting venues and institutions continue to open and allow in more consumers, MacIsaac said it could shift demand.

“When that happens, we’ll have a demand particularly for frozen potato products that we would not have seen before,” he said.

As for Manitoba growers, Berry believes this year will be an improvement.

“I think our production will be up from last year. We had a very tough crop last year in Manitoba. Yields were definitely down,” said Berry. “From what I’ve seen from the stuff we’ve harvested now, it’s definitely going to be average or better than average crop for us.”

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