Those orange-fleshed sweet potatoes Canadians love eating travel many miles to reach our dinner plates.
Most are grown in the southern U.S., where a much longer and warmer growing season makes commercial production possible.
Now new varietal research, underway near Winkler, may make field production of them possible in a Canadian climate too.
Sweet potatoes are included in plot trials within Peak of the Market’s research site on 15 acres south of the community at a former Manitoba Crop Diversification site.
This is the second year of the program, focused on improving yields and developing new varieties to create new production opportunities for potato and carrot growers.
There’s keen interest in growing sweet potato here too, given the increasing popularity of it among consumers, says Keith Kuhl, board chair with Peak of the Market and president of Southern Potato at Winkler.
“It seems to be the in thing to eat,” he said.
Reports say Canadians new-found love of sweet potato has pushed demand up more than 80 per cent in the past decade.
Manitoba growers want to capture that opportunity and grow and supply that demand locally, Kuhl said.
However, until now, although some have experimented with it, sweet potato requires an entirely different production method, plus available varieties haven’t been suited to Manitoba’s shorter, cooler climate.
But that’s changing, said Kuhl. “Varieties that have come out in the last few years are showing a lot more promise,” he said.
“There’s a possibility we can actually make it work.”
The majority of research trials underway at the site looks at nutrient and pest management issues and needs related to potato production in general, however.
“The No. 1 focus is on new opportunities in potato varieties for the fresh market,” said Kuhl.
There again, growers want to capture new opportunities that are emerging in table potatoes. Red-skinned, white-fleshed potatoes have long been a Manitoba staple, but growers are now producing more yellow-fleshed potatoes as demand grows for these. They are also interested in supplying niche product potatoes such as fingerlings, purple-skinned and purple-fleshed potatoes, and red-skinned, red-fleshed potatoes, Kuhl said.
In 2016 there are 29 entries in potato evaluation trials submitted from European breeders as well as from across North America.
Plots are also devoted to varietal evaluations to help grow a better carrot too.
“Genetics in carrots are changing and evolving on an ongoing basis,” Kuhl said. What growers hope to get out of this work is a way to boost yields while producing carrots more uniform in size.
“The taste must always appeal to consumers as well,” he said. “Taste is always a criteria.”
Beyond that, the research site is available for looking at any other potential crop vegetable growers in Manitoba see potential to sell.
The research is being done in co-operation with the Vineland Research Innovation Centre out of Ontario.
“Peak of the Market’s research program has been growing over the last few years,” said Tracy Shinners-Carnelley, Peak’s director of research and quality enhancement, adding that growers have been trying varieties on their own farms.
Having this site will enable growers to see new varieties here too, and if something interests them, they can grow them on a larger scale and evaluate them on their own farms, she said.
Peak of the Market growers are contributing more than $477,000 toward the three-year research project.
Last week provincial Minister of Agriculture Ralph Eichler and federal Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay announced a contribution of $210,000 to support the Winkler-area research project.
The research will provide vegetable growers with relevant information to help them make decisions for their farms, Eichler said in a press release.
“Vegetables are important crops for the province’s farmers and for our agriculture industry, while also having the added benefit of making more nutritious and locally grown food available for Manitobans,” he said.
Manitoba farmers grow more than 9,000 acres of fresh market potatoes and 600 acres of carrots for Peak of the Market every year. The organization and its growers employ more than 1,000 Manitobans.