Potato acres expected to rebound

Last spring was not a good one for Canada’s potato industry.

With COVID-19 restrictions and restaurant closures across North America, french fry manufacturers cut production volumes and adjusted contracts with growers.

This spring, demand for french fries, tater tots and other potato products is closer to normal. Contracted acres of potatoes for processing should climb in Canada, relative to 2019.

In Manitoba, which produced 23 percent of Canada’s potatoes in 2020, contracted acres will likely be higher than last year.

The Keystone Potato Producers Association represents Manitoba potato growers in contract talks with french fry processors in the province: Simplot and McCain’s.

In late April, the two sides agreed on a contract for 2021.

The details are still being sorted, but volumes are higher than 2020 and will be similar to 2019, said Dan Sawatzky, Keystone Potato Producers general manager.

“So, our (contract) volumes are good,” he said.

In the last couple of years, Manitoba potato growers have struggled to produce enough potatoes for the processing plants. In 2019, about 13,000 acres of potatoes were not harvested because a wet September followed by an extremely cold October froze the soil.

Last year, a drought cut into yields, and Manitoba growers produced 337 hundredweight per acre, lower than previous years.

“We were short of our contract by about 15 percent,” Sawatzky said. “The season wasn’t the best.”

However, Manitoba potato yields were fantastic compared to New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, where a prolonged drought hammered the potato crop.

New Brunswick growers recorded an average yield of 237 cwt. per acre, the lowest level since 1995, Statistics Canada said.

P.E.I. wasn’t much better. The average yield in the province was 250 cwt. per acre, about 40 cwt. below normal.

With the poor yields, potato stocks are extremely low in the Maritimes.

As of April 1, potato stockpiles were 36 percent below average in New Brunswick.

Stocks are also down in Alberta, around 21 percent below normal.

However, the situation is different in Alberta, said Kevin MacIsaac, United Potato Growers of Canada general manager.

Processing plants in Alberta have been manufacturing more french fries and other products. Therefore, they’ve been using more potatoes.

“In Alberta, (it’s) good demand. They had an opportunity to export,” MacIsaac said.

In Manitoba, french fry processors have relied on imported potatoes, from Idaho and elsewhere, to keep their plants running close to capacity in the last few years.

With increased volumes in the 2021 contract, Manitoba potato growers have a chance to displace those imports and fully supply the Simplot plant in Portage la Prairie and McCain plants in Carberry and Portage.

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