Beleaguered Manitoba potato growers are hoping for a normal crop this year after three consecutive years of adverse weather, unharvested acres, lower-than-expected yields and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
Guarded optimism would be the best way to describe growers’ mood as they prepare for the 2021 crop amid weather and market conditions largely beyond their control.
“You have to be resilient to be a potato grower,” said Dan Sawatzky, general manager of Keystone Potato Producers Association. “You have to be optimistic or you wouldn’t be in the business. But with three (challenging) years back to back, the mood is — what’s the right word — certainly not as optimistic. Maybe cautiously optimistic going into this year. Maybe somewhat subdued as well.”
Manitoba growers’ string of misfortune began in 2018 when an early frost left 4,000 acres of potatoes in the ground. Another 5,000 acres’ worth of tubers were touched by frost, spoiled in sheds and had to be removed.
Bad as 2018 was, 2019 was worse. The weather turned ugly in fall and unrelenting rains during harvest season, followed by frost, left 13,000 acres unharvested and produced more breakdown in storage than normal.
Although 2020 did not experience adverse harvest conditions, the crop got off to a late start when wet fields from the previous fall delayed seeding. Then came a heat wave lasting several weeks in July, causing potato plants to shut down and stop advancing. Another hot spell arrived in August just as tubers were starting to bulk. As a result, yields for 2020 were 15 per cent short of expected.
Sawatzky said Manitoba processors were forced to import potatoes during all three years to make up for shortfalls. As of this spring, seed potato supplies were “very tight.”
Also this spring, soil conditions in parts of agro-Manitoba were very dry after a winter with limited snowfall and sparse spring run-off. Water levels in surface reservoirs were very low in March, making supplies look “rather bleak” without spring rains, Sawatzky said.
On top of everything else, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench into potato markets in 2020 after fast-food restaurants were forced to close their eat-in spaces and only drive-through orders were allowed. Processing potatoes took a severe hit with french fry sales dropping 40 per cent initially, said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada.
But the pandemic actually provided a silver lining for table potatoes as socially isolated homemakers rediscovered home cooking. At one point last year, retail sales of fresh potatoes were running 35 per cent above the previous year, MacIsaac said.
Today, with COVID vaccinations becoming widespread, prospects for french fries are improving. As of March, french fry sales were nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, according to MacIsaac.
“If restaurants continue to stay open at an even greater level, we should be able to increase our sales of french fries to what the industry was doing before COVID came along,” he said by phone from Charlottetown. “We still have some uncertainties hanging over our heads that we don’t have answers for in terms of demand and restaurants going back to being completely open, that kind of thing. But based on what we know today, I’m quite optimistic.”
MacIsaac said planted potato acreage in Canada last year was down 5,000 acres from the previous year because COVID was taking hold right at planting time. Processors saw their volumes reduced and were forced to cut back supplies from growers.
But MacIsaac predicted plantings will recover in 2021.
“I see it rebounding by at least 5,000 acres to where we were and I think slightly above that.”
Canadian potato plantings totalled 357,085 acres in 2020. Manitoba growers planted 71,500 acres, second only to Prince Edward Island with 83,600 acres.
Sawatzky said growers this year were hoping for price increases from Simplot and McCain, Manitoba’s two potato processors, to help compensate for previous reduced yields. Contract negotiations in March were still at an early stage.
Manitoba growers applied in 2018 for financial assistance from Agri-Recovery because of their crop disaster that year. Sawatzky said producers tried to continue their claim in 2019 but the provincial government was unwilling to participate, so they are not pursuing it now.
Despite challenges, there are still farmers who want to grow potatoes. Sawatzky said the Manitoba industry currently has 59 processing farms, an increase of eight over the last two years.
Vikram Bisht, a Manitoba Agriculture plant pathologist, said plant diseases were not expected to be a major issue in potato crops this year, although it was still much too early to tell. He said verticillium wilt was a problem last year, with some fields showing a 20 per cent infection rate.
Manitoba runs an early-warning system for potato crops with a network of weather forecasting stations, as well as a network for trapping late blight spores. If spore levels are high, producers may decide to spray crops with fungicides to combat the disease.