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Potato Growers of Alberta create new research Chair at University of Lethbridge

Research capacity in Alberta’s potato industry will be significantly enhanced due to a $1 million investment in the University of Lethbridge by a consortium of association and industry partners.

The University of Lethbridge will receive the funds over five years from the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA), McCain Foods, ConAgra Lamb Weston and Cavendish Farms to establish a Chair in potato science.

“Growers and processors identified a need to expand research in this critical field,” says Terence Hochstein, the PGA’s executive director. “There are only a handful of researchers dedicated to the discipline throughout western Canada and we expect this new Chair will greatly enhance and complement the current capacity that exists.”

The Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA) is a non-profit potato grower organization that aims to increase the success of the potato growing industry in Alberta. To accomplish this, the PGA works on three fronts: education and extension, marketing and promotion, and research.

Alberta’s potato industry is worth over $1 billion annually, including $165 to $180 million in farm gate receipts.

The University will immediately begin its search for a scientist with demonstrated experience in the potato industry. As well, the University will be seeking a researcher who is able to collaborate with producers and industry partners.

In addition to building research capacity, Hochstein hopes that University of Lethbridge graduate and undergraduate students benefit from the Chair and that future capacity is created for the industry.

“One of the consortium’s long-term aspirations is that through student-research activities and related interactions, more agriculturally-focused students will consider a career in the potato industry,” says Hochstein. “While the potato industry is big business in Alberta, family farms continue to be a significant contributor to both seed and consumption potatoes.”

University of Lethbridge President and Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Mike Mahon, says the PGA investment recognizes the commitment the University of Lethbridge is making to Alberta’s agriculture industry.

“This investment, coupled with the recent donation made by Cor Van Raay, illustrates the leadership role that the University of Lethbridge plays in agriculture,” says Mahon. “We recognize agriculture as a dominant industry in southern Alberta. We will continue to respond to the economic, social and quality of life needs of southern Albertans.”

Acting Vice-President (Research), Dr. Lesley Brown, says existing research strengths at the University of Lethbridge will enhance the work performed by the new Chair.

“The work done by this new Chair will complement existing University of Lethbridge agricultural research strengths like water, epigenetics and remote sensing,” says Brown. “The University of Lethbridge has a history of successful interdisciplinary projects and this new expertise will not only expand capacity for potato research, but will inform many other important areas as well.”

Alberta potato industry needs access to research

Southern Alberta is home to a thriving potato industry and John Bareman, Chairman of the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA), is one of many potato growers in the area. He got into the business more than a decade ago when the ConAgra Lamb Weston processing facility opened. Based on a farm near Taber, he’s been growing potatoes ever since.

He says getting a successful crop of potatoes out of the ground depends on many factors, like having the right growing conditions, enough people to do the work, and healthy plants.

“Potatoes become susceptible to many diseases and it’s important to have expertise close by,” says Bareman.

Potato growers need answers quickly when diseases like early or late blight threaten their potato crop and that’s one of the reasons they support establishing a new Chair of potato science at the University of Lethbridge.

Industry partners, McCain Foods, Cavendish Farms and ConAgra Lamb Weston, also support the initiative and, together with the PGA, have committed $1 million over five years for the research initiative.

Given Alberta’s potato industry is worth more than $1 billion every year, the partners want to increase research capacity and provide more opportunities for students.

“The potential is there for a phenomenal result,” says Bareman. “If we get local kids going to the University of Lethbridge and finding a career in the local industry, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

In addition, Bareman would like to see new varieties of potatoes developed as part of the research by the Chair of Potato Science.

“The potato varieties we grow are probably older than I am. There’s a lot of potential for new varieties but we have to get the right combination of good storage, good yield and frying well,” he says.