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Maritime potato harvest a pleasant surprise

Late-season rains gave the crop a lift, but access to irrigation remains a concern for Island growers

The 2016 harvest in the country’s largest potato-producing province proved to be a pleasant surprise.

By mid-August, many growers in Prince Edward Island were starting to brace for a below-average harvest. A dry summer saw much of the crop, especially in the central part of the province, slow to size up and problems with both yield and quality were predicted.

“It is hard to project the impact of dry conditions on the final overall yield but, at this time, the projected average yield will be down to 270 hundredweight to the acre from last year’s 279,” United Potato Growers of Canada general manager Kevin MacIsaac said in an August 15 crop report.

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He was as happy as anyone that his projection was way off the mark. By the time the harvest was in full swing in October, the projected yield for the 89,000 acres planted was 290 cwt. That figure was also used by Statistics Canada when it released its production figures in late November.

What happened? In short, Island growers received that often-elusive combination of the right weather at the right time. That badly needed rain finally came in the last week of August and was followed by plenty of sunshine in September and early October.

“The situation turned out much better than it looked back in July, no question about it,” said MacIsaac, who is also a former chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board. “Harvesting conditions were pretty close to ideal for the most part.”

The favourable change in the weather also had a positive impact on quality. The general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board described the quality of the Island crop as “average.” Greg Donald added “while there are some isolated issues, overall the quality is good — for the most part, things sized up nicely.”

Turning to New Brunswick, there were 47,000 acres harvested compared to 47,900 in 2015. Yield also dropped from 315.2 to 305 cwt. However, MacIsaac said that figure is somewhat deceiving since growers in the northern part of the province (especially in the Grand Falls area) had record yields and excellent quality.

“It was almost like New Brunswick was split in two and there were major differences,” MacIsaac said.

Irrigation limited

Irrigation — or rather the lack of it — continues to be a major issue for the P.E.I. industry. There has been a ban on new high-capacity wells for agricultural use since 2002 and both the P.E.I. Potato Board and Cavendish Farms began to press for the measure to be repealed following a dry summer in 2014. The government eventually responded by sending the matter to a legislative committee, which recommended the development of legislation to govern all water use. A draft act is expected to come before the legislature next spring.

What has growers like Gary Linkletter particularly upset is that the ban pertains only to agricultural irrigation. Deep-water wells for such uses as car washes and golf courses are routinely approved by government. Meanwhile, the former chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board and president of family-owned Linkletter Farms Limited has few options but to watch his crop wilt when nature fails to provide enough moisture.

“You can do everything right but if you don’t get rain it doesn’t matter,” Linkletter said. “We just want that option available if a grower chooses to use it.”

Current Potato Board chair Alex Docherty agrees, saying growers can’t always depend on the weather conditions turning around like they did this year. He pointed to the dire situation faced by growers in Ontario, where drought cut acreage significantly, even on farms where irrigation was available.

“We intend to remain very involved in the process as the Water Act is developed and we will continue to lobby government to ensure our concerns are heard.”

Surplus disappears

Docherty said the mood among Island growers is vastly different from just a year ago. In the fall of 2015, the industry was dealing with a surplus of spuds in the marketplace as shipments began for that year’s crop.

This time around, there was little in the way of inventory left and Docherty is convinced prices will be strong as shipments begin to move. He noted that is great news for the Island economy, noting “for every penny that the price increases, that is an extra $9 million that goes into the P.E.I. economy.”

MacIsaac agreed. “Canadian shipments will be generally balanced. Overall demand has been good and shipments as of the end of November are ahead of a year ago.”

He said another major factor is that processors in New Brunswick are purchasing significant amounts of open-market potatoes, which didn’t happen in 2015.

Agronomy initiative

In the spring of 2016, P.E.I. processing growers joined forces with Cavendish Farms, Dalhousie faculty of agriculture and the provincial Department of Agriculture and Fisheries to form the Enhanced Agronomy Initiative. This industry-led effort sees growers who sell to Cavendish Farms fund their portion through a checkoff when they sell their crop. The money collected will be matched by the processing company and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

“It is up to the growers to decide the priorities,” said Ryan Barrett, who is the research co-ordinator for the P.E.I. Potato Board and the project lead for this new initiative.

Barrett said the money could be used for such things as demonstration day, bringing in speakers, or joint research projects in partnership with government, academic institutions or other organizations.

Three working groups have been established — soil and water management, seed improvement, and science and technology. Barrett said there will be meetings held over the winter to set research priorities for 2017.

This article originally appeared in the 2017 National Potato Guide.

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