Alberta potato growers fearful of future

So far, high quality along with a strong reputation for hardy and virus-free seed stock has kept potato acreage steady in Alberta

Unlike other potato-growing areas, Alberta acreage has held steady. 
But producers fear cuts to their contracts may be coming.  Photo: Supplied
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The humble potato is suffering a very bad rap of late — and that has Alberta growers worried.

Although full of vitamins, nutrients and fibre, the longtime staple has become vilified in the last decade and grouped with sugar and white flour as an obesity-causing ‘white food.’ And changing demographics and tastes has more North Americans reaching for rice, quinoa, couscous, and other starches instead of potatoes.

So far, Alberta growers are holding their own, but are likely to be feeling the pinch of declining production contracts in the near future.

“We’re absolutely concerned,” said Terence Hochstein, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta. “There has been declining demand for both fresh and frozen potato products for a decade.

“Why? Misconceptions, diet crazes, you could go on and on about the issues that affect the potato market. You can’t blame anyone, no one is at fault. A fad will come along and someone pays the price. We hope as an industry we can turn it around.”

Production acreage in Alberta has been fairly steady — at around 53,000 acres — in recent years. But growers in Eastern Canada and parts of the U.S. have seen their production contracts cut back in the face of declining demand, and it’s feared the same will happen here because the North American potato market is so interconnected.

Just how interconnected?

Currently, only about five per cent of potatoes grown in Alberta are sold fresh to domestic markets. Approximately 18 per cent of potatoes are grown for seed, about half of which is sold into the U.S. because Canadian potatoes are known as both hardy and virus free. The remaining 77 per cent are processed into products like french fries and potato chips, the majority of which — a full 82 per cent of all Canadian french fry exports — is then sold into the U.S.

While the U.S. is known for its own spud production, a large portion of American potato products are destined for offshore sales. The country’s biggest production area is the Columbia Basin, which has easy access to the Port of Seattle for export. In turn, the U.S. uses the Canadian french fry supply to backfill its domestic market. As such, if demand declines anywhere within North America or in any country the U.S. exports to, Albertan producers are likely to be affected.

“Our contract volumes (to potato processors) were the same this year as last year, which is good,” said Hochstein. “I think that is based on our excellent quality. We have very diligent growers who take a great deal of pride in the product they produce.”

But, he added, even the very best-quality potatoes won’t have a market if consumers decide to snub potatoes.

“We have to educate the public that potatoes are good for you; they are healthy,” he said. “Our responsibility as growers and processors is to take the myths out of the potato and show the science-based facts about why it is healthy.”

Currently, potato production in Alberta is worth $175 million to $185 million at the farm gate and about $1 billion after processing.

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