A bumper Manitoba processing potato crop was stolen from farmers by bad harvest weather.
“We ended up with about 5,200 acres left in the ground,” Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Keystone Potato Growers Association told the Keystone Agricultural Producers advisory council meeting here Nov. 12. “That’s unprecedented in the history of potatoes I guess in the last 50 years.”
There have been frozen potatoes and unharvested fields before, but 2018 was different, Sawatzky said later in an interview.
“It has never been as widespread as this and never the percentage of acreage. It’s quite a setback.”
Based on potatoes harvested earlier this fall yields were expected to be the third highest on record, he said, which no doubt adds to the disappointment. But September rains delayed harvest and a hard frost hit Oct. 10 or 11.
“Not half the potato growers had their crop off at that stage,” Sawatzky told the KAP meeting.
Frost went down into the soil three inches, damaging tubers. Some farmers continued to dig and store those potatoes. They could spoil, although so far they are holding up, he said.
“Most growers target an end harvest date of Oct. 1,” Sawatzky said in an interview. “There will be years when it drags on a little beyond that. This year just because of the wet conditions throughout September the growers were just not able to make progress.”
Why it matters: Manitoba is the second-largest potato-producing province in Canada. Losses of this scope will have an impact well beyond the local farm level.
Total potato plantings — processing and table — were up 2,000 acres to 64,000 this year, Sawatzky said. The majority — around 47,000 acres — were grown for the frozen french fry market.
Despite the jump in acreage with so many acres left in the ground total 2018 production of 20 million hundredweight is down two million hundredweight, or 10 per cent, he said.
Even if those frozen potatoes had been harvested they are worthless to growers, Sawatzky said. They can be fed to cattle, but growers have to give them away.
The impact on individual potato growers depends on how much they harvested before the frost, Sawatzky said.
“To me it’s a sad story for the industry as a whole,” he said. “But when we talk about the hurt some will have experienced quite a bit more than others.
“The general feeling is if you’re down at crop insurance levels you’re already taking quite a hit.”
That’s because crop insurance covers 80 per cent of the growers’ long-term average yield. But there’s another 15 per cent discount on claims related to unharvested potatoes.
This year’s lower production means Manitoba’s potato processors are short of spuds, Sawatzky said. One has already been importing potatoes from Alberta.
Sawatsky said the issue is sending ripples through the whole Manitoba potato value chain.
However, it also means that the sector is working together to overcome the issue, he told the Co-operator.
That means processors, from the top corporate level down, are adjusting sales programs and pack plans to aid potato growers in working through issues like fry colour and rejection levels.
“The processors are demonstrating commitment to working with producers,” Sawatsky said. “It’s an industry hurt, and the whole industry is working together.”
Simplot is expanding its potato-processing plant so Manitoba potato plantings will increase again in 2019, Sawatzky said.
“Some additional sheds have been built and I expect a few more will be built in anticipation of the expansion,” he said. “But this crop certainly cuts into the ability to do that in some cases. Again everyone’s situation is different.
“We need to work together. The processors will share in this hurt by their production being down somewhat as well.”
Manitoba vegetable producers also struggled with harvest, vegetable grower and Vegetable Growers Association of Manitoba representative Sam Connery told the KAP meeting.
“It was a bit of a frustrating and brutal fall,” she said. “There were no conventional onions that really made it this year. Lots and lots of people who had crop insurance are really falling back on that this year. Several of our carrot fields are out there sitting there. They haven’t even been disced down so there will be field prep work to be done in the spring, which is not ideal for us.
“Some of the crops came off all right and some of them tolerate the frost, but that rain really made life difficult for us.”
In his opening remarks to KAP delegates, president Bill Campbell said the 2018 harvest was stressful for many farmers.
“I urge you to reach out if you are having stress issues,” he said, adding farmers should monitor their neighbours’ emotional health.
KAP delegates from all across Manitoba reported harvest delays due to wet weather in September. Most areas, other than The Pas, were dry this summer, hurting cattle pastures and forage yields. But most delegates also reported better-than-expected canola and cereal yields.
On balance 2018 was a reasonably good year for Manitoba agriculture, Campbell said in an interview.
“Harvest was a challenge, but I think for the most part you could say farmers were able to adapt and cope and get the job done,” he said. “We were able to probably put 99 per cent of the crop in the bin. And it’s a relatively good crop considering what we had to go through.”
It was one of Campbell’s better crops despite only receiving seven inches of rain during the growing season and getting hail in June on his farm at Minto, he said.
A shortage of forage will see cattle farmers culling herds hard, Campbell said. But there are other sources of feed, including straw and lower-quality cereal grains, he added.
“We lived through BSE (which prevented Canadian cattle exports and depressing prices) so we can live through this as well,” Campbell said. Producers will get through it, but it won’t be good. “Probably my bigger concern is where does this place young producers.
“There may be some challenges for young producers in this climate.”
Farmers take a huge risk every year and it’s not just from the weather, Campbell said, pointing to $12 billion in farm subsidies for American farmers to offset losses triggered by President Donald Trump’s trade war.
“We’ve got a federal government in Ottawa that will not deal with that at all,” Campbell said. “We’re seeing soybean, canola, hogs, targeted and supply management. These are some things that will be issues as we go along and get into a new production cycle in 2019.”