When the books closed on Manitoba’s potato industry for 2010 it went down as the year of the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly.
There were bumper crops for some growers with good drainage and the chance to max out yields with irrigation. For others, especially those on heavier soils with poor drainage, it was drowned-out fields and lower yields.
For a few it was the nightmare scenario of a late blight infestation, which required parts of some fields – and even the odd entire field – to be tilled under to keep the brutal disease in check.
Gary Sloik, manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association, said it all added up to results that were all over the chart for the province’s potato growers.
“We had some members who had exceptional crops, and other members who suffered badly,” Sloik said in an interview. “Those who suffered badly were deal ing with everything from tough weather conditions to late blight outbreaks.”
Dealing with that variability made for some challenges for the processors, who had to juggle deliveries a bit to bring in potatoes from storages before they spoiled, for example.
“They seemed to be able to deal with that fairly well, and get around those issues,” Sloik said. “Now we’re just delivering last year’s crop and the processors expect it to see them through to the end of July or early August.”
The province’s processing facilities typically schedule a brief “turnaround” where intensive maintenance work is performed and additional equipment is added where required. Sloik says most in the industry then expect to see a push for an early start, using potatoes shipped in from other growing areas for the first few weeks, until the local crop is ready to roll.
“They’ll be bringing in potatoes from Washington for the first few weeks,” Sloik said. “This is something they’d done quite a bit a few years ago, but they haven’t been bringing in potatoes for the past few years.”
In part that’s because the global economy has been weak since at least 2008, which has translated into reduced restaurant sales, which are the primary driver of processed potato sales. Now that the economy appears to have stabilized, so have restaurant sales.
“They’re not growing quickly, but they aren’t shrinking anymore either,” Sloik said.
For local growers that’s likely to mean stable acres in Manitoba for the coming year. What’s up in the air is just what they’ll be worth. Few growers throughout North America have a contract settlement with a processor for the coming season, Sloik said.
“So far it’s just Washington and Alberta growers,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of meetings, but we haven’t settled anything yet.”
And just what those settlements will be is anyone’s guess this year. Processors appear to be in a tough spot – attractive prices for crops like corn and soybeans are giving growers other options, yet a still-anemic restaurant market won’t support dramatically higher prices for the finished french fries. Sloik says from an overall potato industry perspective it’s troubling, but for the growers he represents he can’t honestly say it’s a huge problem, since other crops limit the downside they’ll be forced to accept.
“It’s an opportunity,” he said. “With other crop prices high – things like corn, canola and soybeans – right now they’re starting to be a bit persuasive looking.”
For growers it all boils down to an equation that accounts for both the risk they’re assuming and the potential reward they may reap. And more and more in Manitoba, that complicated calculus is beginning to determine where Manitoba potatoes are grown, and the determining factor is land type.
“The growers who are seeing the most success are the growers who are able to really max out their yields with irrigation,” Sloik said. “They need well-drained soils to really realize that potential.”
That’s translated into growers on sandier land around Carberry and along the No. 2 Highway corridor in places like Treherne seeing decent crops while others have struggled. Meanwhile growers in less-sandy soils in places like Winkler and Portage la Prairie have struggled. Sloik says wet conditions always highlight the drainage problem, and that there aren’t any cheap solutions if you’re not already on well-drained soil.
“There is tile drainage, but of course that’s extremely expensive,” he said. “Back in my early days growing potatoes we always said it was like you bought your land three times. Once when you bought it, once when you irrigated it and once when you tiled it.”
This economic reality has slowly been expressed by growers in the more challenging areas drifting out of potatoes and growing other crops better suited to the soils of the area, such as soybeans. Over the past several years Sloik estimates that 15 growers out of a pool of about 90 have left the potato business.
“Almost all were in a situation where their land base didn’t support optimum yields,” Sloik said.
The other piece of the puzzle is also the alternative crops, which Sloik notes are predominantly being grown in areas where potatoes struggle and conversely aren’t really part of the scene where potatoes have been doing well.
“You do see a lot of corn and soybeans, for example, around the Winkler area, so they’re seen as a real option,” Sloik says. “But there aren’t a lot of either of those crops in the Carberry area, for example.”
– Gary Sloik