Southern Alberta’s potato growers are harvesting a good average crop this year despite a week to 10 days of the growing season lost due to adverse spring weather, says an industry spokesman. Edzo Kok of Taber, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA), said on Sept. 12 that most in the industry hoped good fall weather would extend the growing season for the potato crops, but it didn’t happen. “We started the season a week to 10 days late, and the crop stayed seven to 10 days behind all year,” he said.
The early varieties, mainly Shepody and Ranger, are mostly harvested, and harvest for the main variety, Russet Burbank, is just gearing up. “Nobody is saying it is a great crop or a poor crop,” said Kok. “It is an average crop.” The big disappointment this year is that about 3,000 acres of potatoes were hit hard by hail, some of the fields were wiped out.
The good news is that hail damage was much less severe this year compared with 2008 when 10,000 acres of the crop was hit. Some of the damaged crops had to be plowed under because the processor calculated they couldn’t use the potatoes.
Still, said Kok, he anticipates the 65 commercial farmers who grow potatoes mostly for the french fry and potato chip processing industry and some for the fresh table market, will have enough supply to keep the processors going until the next crop can be harvested.
The PGA has about 125 members, including 14 greenhouse operators who produce the early plant material for seed potato producers. It also includes 24 Hutterite colonies with 50 acres or less who mostly sell through farmers markets, small potato packagers or at the farm gate. There are also 35 seed potato growers in Alberta, mostly in the central region. There is one new south seed grower – Peter Kamper and a partner growing 500 acres on the Blood Reserve in a new crop rotation agreement with opportunity for a long-term venture.
Kok said that while the number of growers and acres planted to potatoes is small – Alberta ranks number four in Canada behind Prince Edward Island, Manitoba and New Brunswick for acres, but number three in potato production behind P.E.I. and Manitoba because of irrigation – it is a valuable farmgate crop, worth an estimated $200 million.
Processed potato sales in the form of french fries and potato chips are worth about $700 million a year. “Our figures show our industry sales are worth $900 million a year, higher than the Alberta government reports,” said Kok. It shot up soon after McCains Canada Ltd. built in Coaldale in 1998 and Lamb Weston built at Cranford in 1999 to become major players in the french fry industry. With the security of production contracts with the processors, fresh table potato production has dipped to about 2,500 acres in Alberta, he said. The peak was 4,000 acres.
MORE TABLE GROWERS WANTED
The commission is attempting to encourage more fresh table production to try to capture a bigger share of the Alberta table potato market. Alberta farmers supply only about half the table potatoes consumed in Alberta. He said it is more expensive to truck table potatoes to Alberta, both in fuel and greenhouse gases created by the trucks. “But we need growers with a long-term commitment to table potatoes,” Kok said. “There is more risk because the table potato price is volatile and there is no contract. Processing potato growers with a contract know what they will be paid before they plant their crop.”
Kok said potato processors boosted the price paid to growers this year, recognizing increasing costs of production.
Farmers are faced with input costs of up to $1,500 an acre before the crop emerges, and a total cost of production of about $3,000 an acre when you consider the expensive equipment and buildings needed for potato production. “A farmer who wants to get into potatoes would have about $10 million tied up in equipment and buildings just to get going,” said Kok.
Alberta is the sole market for fresh market potatoes produced in the province, he said. About half the seed potatoes are exported to the U. S. and some to Mexico, and french fries mostly are sold to the Asian Pacific and American markets.