Processing Biggest Market For Alberta Potatoes

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Another crop of process potatoes destined for McCain’s french fry plant east of Coaldale is in the ground. Typically, McCain contracts about 11,000 acres with 32 growers in the province. About 25 per cent of the growers is exclusive to McCain, while the rest also contract with other potato processors in southern Alberta, such as Lamb-Weston and Maple Leaf.

While negotiations were still underway in mid-April, McCain’s field manager Mitch Cook expected an agreement to be reached shortly. He has meetings with a group of five growers under the Potato Growers of Alberta, who negotiate on behalf of the rest of the process potato growers. The negotiation takes about five months. Last year, an agreement was signed on March 28.

At the field level, growers for McCain plant about 90 per cent Russet Burbank, but also grow Shepody and Ranger Russet varieties. Growers plant around the middle of April, and harvest August 6 to 10 for earlies and mid-September for Russets.

Potatoes are stored on the farm up until the following August. Nothing is stored onsite at McCain. Instead, farms truck the potatoes to the plant on a regular basis throughout the year, delivering anywhere from 600 to 1,000 tonnes each day.

While Cook spends much of his time handling the phone lines and being the “go-to” guy for growers, agronomist Ross May spends his days working at the field level. May and a field rep work with growers to monitor agronomics, storage conditions and potato colour, using McCain’s CropMet and StoreMet programs. Different temperatures are required for different lengths of storage, since some potatoes are stored for 12 months or longer, while others are more short term. Some of the field issues for growers are blackleg and potato leaf row virus, says May. Over the past few years, blackleg has become more of a problem. There are no pesticides that control the bacteria, which thrive in cool, wet soils. It often comes in with the seed and can spread quickly, rotting the tubers to liquid. May says that 2004 to 2005 was one of the worst blackleg years in southern Alberta. Since then the growers have done a good job of controlling the spread.

Another disease affecting process potatoes is potato leaf roll virus. It is spread by the green peach aphid, which can be controlled. The most effective control method, however, is to plant virus-free seed. According to the Potato Growers of Alberta, 68 per cent of Alberta’s potato crop is grown for processing.

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