Helmet Leili has had a lot to learn in a short period of time as the new executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA). “There’s been a lot to learn, but it’s very interesting,” he said. Headquartered in Taber, the PGA represents 135 potato growers in the province. In 2012, a total of 55,700 acres of potatoes were planted and the total value of the industry, including crop and value added, amounts to $1 billion annually. “It’s a big industry in Alberta,” said Leili.
While the Lethbridge, Taber, Vauxhall and the Bassano-Brooks area is the most known for potato production, Leili says there’s another integral region. “Up near Edmonton and Lacombe we grow a lot of seed potatoes and a lot of people don’t know that.” He says potato producers had a very good year. “During harvest, there was only one day of rain, so that was very good.”
There isn’t a hurry for these potatoes anyway because after they are harvested, they aren’t sent for processing right away. “The potatoes are stored for a year before they’re sold, and that’s where things can get tricky,” Leili explained. Potato producers store their harvest in large buildings with carefully controlled temperature and humidity.
“You know those small town arenas with the dome-type roof that goes down to the ground on either end? That’s what they look like,” said Leili.
Within the southern Potato Belt, there are a number of potato-processing plants. Alberta’s potato-growing regions are among the best in the world, and there are 197 varieties grown in the region. In many instances, producers are contracted by an area processing company to grow a specific variety for a specified price. Leili said potato producers may not achieve fame and fortune contract growing, but it’s sustainable and it works out well.
“They can make a good life that way, and continue to do what they love,” he said, adding that the province’s growers take pride in having a very small footprint, and in using very few chemical interventions. “That information needs to get out there.”
While Alberta may be known for its beef, Leili said the PGA is going to be reaching out to consumers more effectively in the future to really share the province’s meat and potatoes story. There are three distinct sectors of the Alberta potato industry. The fresh market supplies table potatoes to the end consumer through direct purchase and through retailers. That segment accounts for five per cent of production. The processing sector accounts for 81 per cent of production in the province. The seed potato market accounts for the remaining 14 per cent of production in the province to supply other growers domestically and internationally.
The irrigation available in the southern region, the number of hours of sunshine and well-drained soil is key to Alberta’s potato success, and several processing plants have set up shop in the province to take advantage of the reliable supply. In the southern area there is a Lamb Weston plant at Taber and a McCain plant at Coaldale. Both of these plants are producing french fries for the fast-service restaurant industry. As well, there are potato chip plants including an Old Dutch facility at Calgary and a Frito Lay plant at Taber.
Ross May, an agronomist with McCain Foods, says production has been very good recently, although there have been some issues with late blight in the last couple of years. Overall, he says, Alberta is perfectly suited for the industry.
“The cold winters that we have here in Alberta are ideal for a lot of our disease prevention. Not a lot of diseases can survive our cold winters whereas in the Columbia Basin or the Magic Valley of Idaho, it’s a lot milder and diseases and insects vectoring those diseases have a better chance of surviving,” said May.
McCain held its annual Growers’ Banquet recently in Lethbridge and more than 120 guests helped celebrate producer achievements. Claassen Farms Ltd. of Vauxhall was named the 2011-12 McCain Champion Potato Grower and Lane Lievaart Farms Ltd., of Coaldale, Alberta was the recipient of the McCain Environmental Award.