Alberta potatoes mostly escape the deluge of 2016

A bit of luck, combined with tile drainage, helped Alberta potato growers survive the province’s wet 2016 season

For Alberta potato growers, the 2015 and 2016 growing seasons could not have been more different — hot and dry followed by cold and wet. Despite that, 2016 yields were more or less consistent with the past several years.

“Our acres are flat — they have been for the past couple of years,” says Terence Hochstein, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA). He says there are about 53,000 acres in Alberta — 3,000 acres of fresh potatoes, 10,000 acres of seed potatoes and 40,000 acres for the process industry. “The grand total fluctuates from year to year but that 40,000 acres of process potatoes stays consistent.”

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Hochstein says some of this consistency can be attributed to better agronomic practices. Growers are becoming more diligent by tackling weed issues earlier and more aggressively. The rest, he says, comes down to luck. In this case, Mother Nature has been sparing with late blight.

“I don’t care where you live across Canada — if the environmental conditions are conducive to late blight, you can only control the human factor,” Hochstein says. This year we had a good year with virtually nothing to deal with. There was very little disease pressure.”

Seed potatoes held in high regard

Most of Alberta’s potatoes are grown under irrigation in the south and are process potatoes earmarked for sale to the area’s several french fry and potato chip processors. But growers in the north and central regions of the province have become known internationally for their hardy seed potatoes.

Gord Visser of Norbest Farms is a third-generation potato producer who farms just outside the municipal boundaries of Edmonton. He says most of his neighbouring growers were able to get their potatoes out of the ground before the first frost.

“We have about a 130-day growing season in this area,” he says. “We know our windows for planting and harvest — they’re narrow. There have been challenges for us a lot of years but this year we’ve had pretty good quality in storage.”

Three generations of Alberta seed potato growers: Clarence, Gord and Matthew Visser of Norbest Farms. The family has been growing potatoes since Gord’s grandfather came from Holland to Canada in the 1950s and have been farming seed potatoes since the 1970s.
photo: Supplied

Visser says the province’s northern climate gives seed potato producers an edge.

“Down in the U.S. they tell us the seed potatoes from Alberta are the best they can get. It has a lot to do with us being as geographically as far north as we are. We don’t have the overwintering type of pests they have farther south because our ground freezes solid.”

As with most crops, managing for unpredictable weather is a key to success in producing quality. Potatoes have an advantage because they’re generally more resilient in wet conditions than many other crops, says Visser. The trick is to keep moisture on top of the soil and the roots dry underneath. “Potatoes don’t like wet feet,” he says.

Fortunately for Visser, his land missed most of the moisture that hit much of the province this year. He uses tile drainage to manage moisture accumulation in high-precipitation periods. “Last year drain tiling worked amazing,” he says. “We had 110 acres of tiling done with 10-inch pipes coming out of the field. It really works well because we have irrigation on top and we can hopefully keep their roots dry through the drain tiles.

“It’s costly per acre and if you own the land you can afford to do it. It definitely pays for itself if it’s land you use over and over again.”

Process grower beats the frost

Like Visser, southern-Alberta-based process-potato grower Laus Stiekema of Vauxhall was fortunate in that he missed the heavy moisture much of the province experienced. The third-generation potato farmer, who moved from the Netherlands in 2004, says he had average yield and quality this year.

“It was a little bit under last year’s crop but it was still an average crop. I think we have nice potatoes in the bins.”

Mother Nature was kind to Stiekema, ordering up a light frost on September 12 but otherwise leaving enough time for him to get his potatoes in the bins.

“Towards September we get those colder nights and we’re always hoping not to get that first frost before September 20 so we have a well-matured crop,” he says.

Although potato producers in Alberta face obstacles — such as a shorter season — that competitors in the states of Washington and Idaho do not, Stiekema says crop quality is generally consistent from year to year. “With irrigation you have very even growth typically. It takes a lot of stress away from growing a good and healthy crop. But we’re basically in a desert area and can get too much rain too. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does that’s a big challenge.”

Most of the time, however, the main water-related challenge is keeping moisture on the land. “We have to do everything to preserve water; we dammer-dike the potatoes to hold the water in place so it doesn’t run off.”

Transportation challenges

Thanks in large part to the processing infrastructure in place in the province, demand for Alberta potatoes is fairly consistent. However, growers still need to think on their feet in terms of the future, says Visser.

“I think there’s some change in the wind in regards to demand for different types of varieties. As seed growers we have to be on the leading edge of that. It takes four generations before they go out to the customers who grow them for table or processing potatoes. We have to project and get a feel for variety changes.”

Stiekema sees the effects of globalization, combined with transportation limitations here at home, as ongoing challenges.

“The biggest challenge, on a world scale, is we’re running into European potatoes everywhere,” he says. “This year it’s not a big issue because they’re short and prices are high there. We have a competitive advantage now but in the big picture there will be rising costs for us to haul product out to the marketplace and we’re kind of landlocked here.”

Stiekema would like to see extra rail and road capacity for all agricultural products moving west.

“Yields are double for canola compared to 20 years ago and yields are going up for wheat and other crops. We’re going to need a way out for that product.

“There is also a challenge for Alberta to stay competitive compared to other areas after implementing (the proposed provincial) carbon tax. It will have a big effect on processing cost as well as growing potatoes with fuel cost for irrigation, growing and transporting product.”

One of the year’s biggest developments in the Alberta potato industry was the securing of market access for Alberta seed potatoes in Thailand, an agreement that some industry experts estimate could be worth up to $2 million annually. While Visser thinks this is a positive development, he sees it as just the first step towards developing a market for Alberta seed potatoes in that country.

“We have a trade agreement with Thailand and now we have to develop the markets as an Alberta industry. We need to find out what varieties are growing and find out the trading avenues we need to use to trade with them. This is a process that takes time.”

This article first appeared in the 2017 edition of the Potato Guide

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