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Potato shortage looms on Prairies

Newly expanded french fry plants in Alberta and Manitoba may not be able to run at full capacity because there is little excess potato supply in other parts of North America.

October 31, 2019
Potato processing plants in Manitoba and Alberta, Canada may not run at full capacity this winter. About 20,000 acres of potatoes were in the ground in Manitoba as of the middle of October, and growers needed two weeks of favourable weather to harvest the crop.

In Alberta, temperatures dropped to -7 to -14 C for several days in October. Those temperatures likely caused frost damage to the potato crop, cutting production in the province.

The production challenges and a potato shortfall could affect the new processing plants in Western Canada. This summer, Cavendish Farms officially opened its $350 million processing plant in Lethbridge. Simplot Foods has spent $450 million to double the size of its french fry plant in Portage la Prairie, Man. The expanded plant is scheduled to open in late January.

In a normal year, processors would bring in potatoes from other parts of North America to compensate for a shortfall. That isn’t possible this time.

Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada:

“Areas that we would depend upon for (extra) supply don’t have that supply this year.”

“I never saw such a dire situation in so many states.”
He met with representatives of American potato producing associations in mid-October and learned that many areas have fewer potatoes than expected.

In Idaho, freezing temperatures in October stopped the harvest and likely damaged thousands of acres of spuds. As well, yields are below average across the state.

North Dakota also has challenges. Snow and rain in the second week of October soaked fields, and part of the state’s potato crop will likely remain in the ground.

The same storm brought about 35 to 50 centimetres of snow to parts of Manitoba, including areas such as Portage la Prairie and Carberry, which are key centres of potato production.

About 30 percent of Manitoba’s potato crop remained in the ground as of Oct. 16. Growers seeded about 67,000 acres this spring.

Fields need to dry before digging can resume, but producers remain hopeful they can get the potatoes out of the ground, said Dan Sawatzky, general manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association.

However, the window of opportunity is getting tight.

Dan Sawatzky, general manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association:

“If the weather holds and we get a drying cycle, I think that’s what everyone is hoping for.”

“Growers have not given up. They are holding onto a thread of hope that there might be a chance to go back in.”
On the positive side, Manitoba potato yields have been excellent this fall. Growers are recording yields above the five-year average, which is around 350 hundredweight per acre.

That helps, but it won’t compensate for thousands of acres of unharvested potatoes. The situation could be a repeat of 2018, when potato growers in Manitoba ran out of time to dig the entire crop.

Below normal temperatures froze the soil in the second week of October, making it impossible to harvest 5,000 acres of potatoes.

The difference this year is that other regions don’t have excess potatoes. Simplot Foods may have to operate its new facility in Portage la Prairie at less than capacity next year.

Kevin MacIsaac:

“They’re probably going to have to delay when the full capacity moves up to 100 percent.”
Potato growers in other parts of Canada are having more success.

MacIsaac said producers are making decent progress in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario.
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