Prince Edward Island potato growers at the mercy of the elements

Brett Francis, left, and David Francis assess one of their harvested potato fields, which is covered in mud and puddles from the heavy rain that fell overnight Saturday and into Sunday. The owners and operators of David and Brett Francis Family Farm have not been able to harvest potatoes since last Tuesday due to the wet and cold weather. (Courtesy: Katherine Hunt)

A cold spring, dry summer and wet fall are the recipe for a late end to the potato harvest

This is the first fall in 20 years of owning his harvester that David Francis has had to use the strongest speed to clean his potatoes. Rain and cold temperatures this fall have caused the ground to turn to clay at times, therefore making it more difficult to harvest and clean potatoes.

David Francis:

“I don’t think I’ve had a harvest as tough as this”
David Francis grew up farming and has operated his own farm for 40 years. Francis co-owns and operates David and Brett Francis Family Farm with his son Brett in Lady Fane where they raise cattle and grow several types of vegetables, including 500 acres of potatoes.

Roughly 65 to 70 per cent of potatoes have been harvested across the Island, said general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board Greg Donald. Donald said farmers like to finish their potato harvest by Halloween to beat the frost that often comes by November.

The constant onslaught of rain and cold temperatures have delayed harvest days for many farmers because it may take two or three days before a field can be harvested after it rains. The 15-tonne potato trucks risk getting stuck in the mud if it is too wet. It is also difficult to get potatoes from the wet ground because of how heavy the clay becomes.

David Francis:

“We’ve bypassed or left out more potatoes this year in wet spots than I have total in the last 10 years.”
Potatoes can bruise or crack during cold temperatures. They also run the risk of staying frozen in the ground, where a harvester is unable to break through the earth. Unharvested potatoes mean less money for a farmer’s business.

David Francis:

“It’s a lot of dollars being left in the ground.”
The delays due to weather can also pay a toll on farm employees, who often end up on call instead of working a daily shift starting in the morning.

The cold spring and dry summer also contributed to the late harvest. . Low temperatures in the spring caused some farmers to start planting one to two weeks later. For many who planted early, it took longer for the potatoes to emerge from the ground.

In turn, many farmers started harvesting later than usual to make up the time. The dry summer also didn’t help. It rained twice in the month of August for the Francis’. Dry summers can cause potatoes to be smaller.

Greg Donald, General Manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board:

“All the rain we needed back in July and August we’ve been getting this fall.”
In previous years, the Francis’ were finished harvesting potatoes by Oct. 18. David said he expects four or five more good days of harvesting and they will be able to finish harvesting the last 20 per cent of their potato crop.

David Francis:

“There’s going to be challenges, but I’m optimistic we’ll get our crop in and deal with the challenges that come along.”
Donald said it may take until mid-November for some farmers to finish harvesting.

Greg Donald:

“There are some growers that are finished and there are some growers that are going to need all of the next two weeks and hopefully we get a number of fine days to finish up.”
Donald said it is too early to determine what this year’s yield would be. He said he expects it will be below average.