Most people don’t know it, but Alberta is the third-largest producer of potatoes in the country, after Prince Edward Island and Manitoba.
“Currently we grow about 53,500 acres,” said Terence Hochstein, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta.
The association’s 150 members have a big economic impact. The farm gate value of their potatoes is about $225 million — and that figure more than quadruples once those spuds are processed.
But it’s the sector’s growth that recently caught the attention of ATB Financial.
“What’s remarkable about Alberta’s spud farming is the growth over the last two decades,” the financial institution noted in a recent newsletter. “Compared to 1997, production has more than doubled (up 132 per cent). That compares with an increase of only 35 per cent in Manitoba and four per cent in New Brunswick. Production in Prince Edward Island has dropped 20 per cent.”
“Alberta is quickly becoming the largest potato manufacturer in the country,” ATB chief economist Todd Hirsch told CBC.
There actually hasn’t been a lot of growth in the past few years, said Hochstein — acreage doubled in 2001 when McCain’s and Lamb Weston’s french fry plants came to Alberta.
“We had just one processor and two chip processors,” he said. “Now we have three fry processors and two chip processors. That’s where the big jump is.”
But another increase is just around the corner.
A Cavendish plant in Lethbridge will be expanding in 2019. Once at full capacity, another 9,500 more acres of potatoes will be needed.
About 80 per cent of the acres in the province produce potatoes that will be made into french fries or chips. (PepsiCo Frito-Lay has a plant in Taber and Old Dutch has a Calgary facility). The remaining acres are producing seed potatoes (15 per cent) or ones for the fresh market (five per cent). About 40,000 acres are grown on irrigated land in southern Alberta. The rest is spread across the province, with the big seed-growing acres around Edmonton and Lacombe.
P.E.I. is synonymous with potatoes — in no small part to Stompin’ Tom Connors famous ode ‘Bud the Spud’ — but Alberta isn’t far behind.
“We’ve quietly gone about our business and most people don’t realize that the potato industry is as big as it is in Alberta,” said Hochstein.
But it’s not going to overtake P.E.I. and Manitoba (which will be adding another 15,000 acres because of processing expansion), he said.
“It will continue acre-wise to be No. 3, even with this expansion.”
But production and processing will continue to grow, he added.
That’s partly because the province has warm days and cool evenings, which make for excellent growing conditions. But management — specifically longer crop rotations — is also key.
“One of the big factors for the growth in Alberta is the fact that we are able to maintain a four- or five-year rotation in our crops,” he said, adding some stretch that out to six, seven, or even eight years.
“You have less disease pressure so that makes a better product when you do produce potatoes, especially in the south here because we have so many high-value crops that grow in irrigated soil.”
The potato industry is also unique because all of the farms are multi-generational.
“There is a big group of our growers that are in their late 20s, early 30s with young families,” said Hochstein. “They’re all actively involved in the farm and the next generation is working towards retirement. They all have a succession plan and that’s very unique.
“I think that’s why this growth continues on. It’s sustainable, and the next generation is involved and it’s healthy that way.”
It’s a good time for the sector, said Michel Camps, who farms with wife Hanneke near Barnwell just west of Taber.
“We’re pretty excited about the developments in the Alberta industry right now with the new Cavendish plant coming online and the small expansion that McCain had here two years ago,” said Camps, who immigrated from Holland in 2000. “The growth that we see in our industry is going to create not only more opportunity for existing potato farmers, but for new and upcoming operations as well.
“It’s going to have a large spinoff effect on business people like tractor people and fertilizer sales and chemistry dealers, things like that. The extra acres that are going to be grown are going to require more steel and pesticides and whatnot. I think the whole area will benefit from the expansion.”
One thing that worries Camps is that there may be limited room for extra acres in Taber and Vauxhall. But this means that there may be opportunities outside the traditional growing areas, farther north and in the east.
“In general, I think it will be a really good development for our business,” said Camps, who farms 2,500 acres of potatoes, sugar beets, feed corn, and wheat.