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Potato research addresses issues for Manitoba growers

Economics and environmental protection challenge producers.


March 4, 2008
By Donna Fleury

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Although some research and production issues are common to potato growers across Canada, they also vary from region to region across this diverse country. “One of the greatest issues facing not just Manitoba potato growers, but others across Canada is low economic returns,” says Blair Geisel, president of Gaia Consulting in Portage la Prairie. Gaia Consulting specializes in providing research and agronomy services to potato companies across the industry in Canada. “Research can play an important role, but there are also market forces that influence prices as well.” The high Canadian dollar is affecting the potato industry as well, along with many others.

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Shepody potatoes in a field east of Brandon, 2007 (field production).

Current changes to environmental regulations are putting financial pressure on growers and increasing the challenges of production. “There are new regulations across Canada restricting the use of fertilizer and pesticides, which will increase the management skills and expenses required to produce a potato crop,” explains Geisel. “In some cases, it may take some research to determine how to grow a profitable crop under these new regulations.”

In Manitoba, there are specific efforts to address pollution in Lake Winnipeg and the surrounding watershed. “The concerns are focussed primarily on activities that contribute nutrients to the watershed, especially phosphorus,” explains Dr. Dale Tomasiewicz, centre manager, Canada-Manitoba Crop Diversification Centre (CMCDC). Production of agricultural crops, including potatoes, can potentially lead to phosphorus and other nutrient contributions to the watershed. “With about 40 percent of Manitoba potato production located in the Assiniboine Delta Aquifer area, there are concerns about the potential of nitrate leaching into the groundwater.”

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Other research areas being addressed by Gaia Consulting and other industry and government partners include variety development and evaluation to improve quality, yield and disease resistance. “Varietal selection and development is a high priority area because it can potentially address some of the problems with yields and net returns, and other issues like disease resistance,” says Geisel. “Although varietal selection is particularly important for processing potatoes, the challenge is convincing the ‘quick service restaurants’ to agree to changing varieties.” Some of the larger end users continue to use older familiar varieties, even though there are some newer varieties that could address yield and disease problems and improve net returns.

Gaia Consulting has partnered with McCain Foods, Simplot and Keystone Potato Producers Association to conduct research into new varieties that have some resistance to early dying complex and the fungal disease verticillium wilt. “We are screening various varieties for verticillium wilt resistance,” says Geisel. This disease limits potato production and yields, and to some extent quality. Late blight can be another major disease issue, with similar research assessing varietal resistance. Other research efforts continue to focus on new variety development for chip and fry quality and better yields.

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Fertilization effects in a potato research trial at CMCDC-Carberry, 2005.
Photos Courtesy Of D. Tomasiewicz.

“Another important research area is focussed on potato quality, such as the problem with sugar-end disorder,” explains Tomasiewicz. “Gaia Consulting and CMCDC, with support from
industry and public funding programs, are conducting a study to address this problem, which is particularly an issue for French fry quality (causing dark-ended fries).” The project addresses the effects of irrigation, nitrogen rate and timing on sugar-end disorder. More than 80 percent of potatoes produced in Manitoba are for processing, and almost all of those are produced under irrigation.

“This problem is associated to a considerable degree with moisture conditions during the tuber setting stage and early summer,” says Tomasiewicz. It varies among varieties and can severely affect Russet Burbank, the dominant processing variety. “To some extent, this issue can be addressed through careful control of growing conditions, especially moisture and nutrients.”

The Diversification Centre is continuing with a major long-term potato rotation study, which has been ongoing for 14 years in collaboration with the Agriculture and Agri-Food Research Centre at Brandon. “The demand for processing potatoes has put pressure on irrigated lands, which can’t be easily or quickly expanded,” says Tomasiewicz. To maintain more consistent quality, growers no longer plant the dryland corners of a pivot field, further reducing available quantities. “We are trying to help growers determine the most suitable crop rotation and timing for potatoes at the same time as meeting the increasing demand for processing potatoes.” The general recommendation favours a four year rotation, although a three year rotation is most common.

As the industry moves forward to meet the demands for quality processing, table and seed potatoes, research will continue to be a priority. “Research will continue to play an important role in improving production parameters, yields and quality,” says Geisel. “The various research partners are striving to help growers and processors meet their production and market demands, and to improve their net returns.” -end-

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Potato Rotation Study at CMCDC-Carberry (2005).

United Potato Growers of Canada
The United Potato Growers of Canada (UPGC), formed in 2006, brings its membership, which includes the various provincial marketing boards and commissions, together to improve the marketing of potatoes. Together with its sister organization, the United Potato Growers of America, they work closely with producers to educate and inform them of the importance of supplying ‘Pure Data’, the new term for marketing and production data.

“The purpose is to collect and analyze information about production, marketing and storage holding volumes across Canada,” explains Wayne Dorsey, UPGC consultant. “We package the
information and send it out to our members, who in turn share it with their producer members in each province. The information will help producers better understand the ups and downs of market demand and supply, and to make more informed and more timely production and marketing decisions. Remember, ‘If we can’t measure it, we can’t manage it’.”

The focus of the UPGC is primarily on the fresh segment, although information on the more mature processing market and seed potatoes is also collected. “The US organization is seeing success and seems to be moving forward very quickly,” says Dorsey. “We in Canada need to follow their leadership and continue to improve the sharing of information, communication and co-operation among the grower organizations. We need to build an understanding and awareness that the more information and details growers share, the better able we are to
understand the market.”

UPGC wants to make sure that processors, retailers, food service and other customers, along with producers have timely, accurate information to move the potato industry in Canada forward in a sustainable matter for all. -end-