Top Crop Manager

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Dramatic comeback for PEI seed industry

After near destruction, commitment by growers turns the island's seed industry around.


November 14, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

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Once viewed as nearly perfect for growing top quality seed with 100 percent
of its acres certified for seed production, Prince Edward Island's status was
lowered in the early 1990s by some unexpected problems. With a long history
of growing seed potatoes, the island has ports to access the international marketplace,
cold winters to reduce disease and island isolation to prevent introduction
of new pests. When disaster struck, it was largely due to the forces of nature
and international restrictions and inspection costs.

According to Mary Kay Sonier, seed co-ordinator of the Prince Edward Island
Potato Board, the PVYn virus was identified near the beginning of the last decade
which, for a short time, restricted all seed shipments to the US. Then, the
Canadian Food Inspection Agency introduced cost-recovery for seed certification,
meaning growers producing seed had to pay for the agency's inspectors to certify
their crops.

"Within three years of these two issues hitting our industry, our seed
acreage dropped from 100 percent to 25 percent of our total acreage," says
Sonier. "The result of no longer growing all acres to seed standards, regardless
of intended use, was increasing virus pressure on the seed, poorer quality seed
and loss of reputation in seed markets."

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Something had to be done to recover the seed industry's lost reputation on
Prince Edward Island and the first step was to identify how it all happened.
Traditionally, inspectors walked all potato fields and did a visual assessment
of disease content with a 98 percent pass rate for seed potatoes being common.
With the introduction of cost recovery for inspectors, growers were not getting
inspections done on tablestock and processing acres, resulting in only about
one quarter of the fields being inspected. An increase in the disease-spreading
aphid population during this period and 75 percent of the fields not being checked,
meant the industry did not know it had a serious disease problem building up.
When the visual pass rate for seed entered for inspection dropped to 87 percent
in 1998 and dropped again to 79 percent in 1999, all involved knew changes were
necessary.

"In December 1999, we organized a Seed Strategy Committee with representatives
from all sectors of the potato industry," Sonier says. "Over time,
the group of researchers, government potato specialists, growers and representatives
from the seed, processing and tablestock industries developed a strategy that
has proved effective."

The committee recommended education initiatives to teach growers about disease
management to reduce virus transmission with a move towards better control.
New crop management practices, including the use of crop borders and earlier
killdown for seed fields, were undertaken, aimed at limiting the chance of disease
being spread by aphids. Low virus seed was imported to ensure growers were starting
with clean seed which would limit any inoculum being introduced to the environment.

Sonier says the latter was hard and expensive, but a necessary step for growers.
However, the greatest change, she says, was the introduction of a mandatory
post-harvest laboratory virus test for seed to be planted by all island growers,
not just those expecting to re-certify their crop to sell for seed. When it
was introduced in 1998, the post-harvest test had a goal of identifying high
virus seed lots so that growers could avoid planting them. Eventually, caps
for planting were established, as part of provincial legislation, and then lowered
as seed quality improved. In 2003, the cap was set at three percent.

"The post-harvest test has made a big difference on our ability to control
virus disease," reports Sonier. "We are no longer planting seed that
is highly infected because it is caught at the lab."

The seemingly drastic measures have paid off for island growers because the
visual pass rate for disease in the field has been improving. From its low of
79 percent in 1999, it rose to 96 percent in 2002, 97 percent in 2003 and is
back to 98 percent in 2004. "In 2003, 95 percent of the crop passed the
lab test, which shows the program is working," reports Sonier.

Growers are back using their own seed and little has to be imported as a result
of the initiative. Exports have also improved with an increase of shipments
to the rest of North America and off shore in 2002/03.

The seed industry is starting to rebound, admits a seed grower whose family
has been growing seed for about 40 years in Winsloe. "We tried to plant
the best seed we could get and we desiccated our seed crop a lot earlier than
normal, in August, to reduce our virus levels," says Leigh Laird. "I
think we definitely have things turned around now."

Luckily, the aphid problem has been reduced in recent years due to natural
cycles and effective use of crop protection products, but the industry has strategies
mapped out for when the cycle comes around again. Emphasis on best management
practices continues to play a role in the change, such as using crop borders
to limit pest migration and in-furrow pest control. Laird says, like many growers,
he has adjusted his operation to reduce aphid pressure by using crop borders.
"The more virus there is in a field, the more likely the aphids will spread
it," he says. "So, by minimizing the amount of virus in a field and
taking measures to reduce aphid pressure, you are minimizing the entire virus
problem."

Admittedly, the turnaround did not come without its cost. Growers who pay for
the lab test can lose a lucrative seed crop if their lab test is positive for
disease, leaving them scrambling to find other markets and leaving their buyers
looking for new seed. As things have turned around, this is happening less and
less.

"There has been hardship, but growers have made major management changes
and have committed themselves to making this work, and to guard against it happening
again," says Sonier.

Laird says all growers are trying to do a better job of crop management because
they now recognize the importance of constant vigilance against disease and
pests. "We will never be done improving," he says. "There is
always more we can do."

The seed industry is now turning its attention to promotion with increased
print advertising in trade publications and a new section on the Potato Board
web site (www.peipotato.org) that lists seed lots available for sale. It has
not been easy, Sonier admits, but the result for most seed growers is a renewal
of their reputation as producers of top quality, disease-free seed. -30-