Another winter of headaches for potato growers

Unharvested acres were already more than double last year’s historically hard harvest, now some of that crop is rotting in the pile

Manitoba potato growers are facing the inevitable result of a second extremely challenging digging season — elevated losses in storage.

Wet weather in September and early October kept producers out of the fields, while a three-day snowstorm over the Thanksgiving weekend dropped upwards of 75 centimetres of snow in areas of south-central Manitoba, followed by yet more precipitation.

Just 60 to 65 per cent of Manitoba’s potatoes had been harvested as of Oct. 9, the Keystone Potato Producers Association said at the time.

All that combined to mean that much of Manitoba’s 2019 potato harvest went into storage in less than ideal condition, according to Keystone Potato Producers Association manager Dan Sawatzky.

Dan Sawatzky.
photo: Alexis Stockford

“It’s tough dealing with compromised product,” Sawatzky said. “There’s only so much you can do with high levels of rot.”

Producers are trying to limit the time they spend holding potatoes to help mitigate spoilage, Sawatzky added.

The higher storage temperatures usually required for processing potatoes are doing little to avoid spoilage, retired potato agronomist Leonard Rossnagel noted.

“The organisms that are contributing to breakdown also like those warmer temperatures, so growers are in a bit of a bind,” he said.

Some producers are dropping their bunker temperatures in an effort to stave off rot in frozen potatoes, he said, but that comes at a cost too.

Leonard Rossnagel.
photo: Alexis Stockford

“What happens then is the metabolism of the tuber favours sugar accumulation, and then when you try and fry those potatoes, they end up dark and they taste a little bit burnt, because the sugars are caramelized,” he said. “So the question is, can you warm those up enough to reverse that process and make it acceptable to the processors?”

Some frost-damaged tubers were also earmarked for the newly expanded Simplot plant as processors look for ways to utilize those tubers, Sawatzky noted.

Jamie Smart, owner of Smart Electric, said he has heard many tales of farmers fighting pockets of rot in their bunkers. The Carberry company is a dealer for Techmark’s controls and ventilation systems for potato storage.

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“There was a lot of different challenges,” Smart said of the 2019 season. “Potatoes went from too dry to too hot to too wet and then to too cold.”

The storage challenges are no surprise to producers, he noted. Harvest conditions had already flagged potential issues as potatoes were going into the pile.

“But it’s abnormal compared to a standard year where they have better digging conditions, for sure,” he said. “The summer was fantastic growing conditions. There was a great crop coming in. It would’ve stored really well.”

Popularity decline?

Two hard harvests will likely do little to help potato acres, despite a $480-million Simplot plant expansion in Portage la Prairie.

Seed is already tight. Manitoba’s harvest challenges have hit both seed and processing potatoes, Rossnagel noted, and growers are looking to lock down seed supplies earlier this year as a result. He suggested that Manitoba may see more seed supplies coming out of Alberta, since that province dodged some of the challenges seen here.

“I think the two years back to back of challenging situations certainly will limit the ability to expand as quickly as growers were hoping to,” Sawatzky also said.

“With big losses, you just don’t have the capital to take advantage of some of the big opportunities that the Simplot expansion has presented. It is going to be a little bit of a setback for the whole industry, for processors and growers.”

Fall 2019 marked the second year of quality concerns, unharvested acres, and battles with rot due to weather.

Producers expected a bumper crop, the third largest on record, leading up to harvest in 2018. Those hopes were dashed. The previously dry season suddenly turned into a rainy September, followed by a hard frost in mid-October that froze many tubers in the ground. About 5,200 acres had to be abandoned in the field, Sawatzky later said.

Producers who took a chance storing those frost-damaged potatoes later fought with rot, despite piling bunkers lower to try and mitigate the risk. Sawatzky estimated that potatoes from another 4,000 acres had to be dumped back on the land.

“Generally, when you have potatoes that show more than five or six per cent frost, they’re very difficult to store,” he said. “Last year, we exceeded that. That’s why we struggled to store any and use any, so most of them were thrown away.”

In early 2019, the sector reported that major processors were sourcing potatoes from Alberta and Idaho to make up some of that lack.

At the time, Sawatzky called 2018 “unprecedented,” in Manitoba history.

However, 2019 saw a repeat performance.

Producers did not see the same devastating frost damage as 2018, he noted, although skyrocketing rot cases were common, given the extended period of time tubers were sitting in saturated soil. Carberry, one of the main potato-growing regions of the province, reported over 350 per cent of its normal precipitation during the month of September, according to the Manitoba Ag Weather network.

“Last year, that frost came Oct. 11-12, but growers still had a number of acres out just because of the rain. This year, we had more rain, so actually the season was extended,” Sawatzky said.

Growers also did have several days after the frost where they were able to harvest, he added.

The Keystone Potato Producers Association estimates just over 12,000 acres of Manitoba’s potato acres remain unharvested, with an additional 1,000 acres dug with severe frost damage.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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