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Highlights from the Canadian Potato Summit 2024

Updated: Mar 4

‘We have a great product, but we can do even better with proper marketing’



When it comes to demand for potatoes, the fries have it – or at least, they make up a significant portion of where Canadian-grown spuds are ending up.


That was one of the bits of information shared at the Canadian Potato Summit 2024, which took place online in mid-January.


WHERE IS THE MARKET GOING?

Mark Phillips, marketing specialist with the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, shared that 65 per cent of all the potatoes grown in Canada are slated for processing, meaning that they’ll end up as or in products like chips, French fries, canned soup, etc. The fresh market makes up 22 per cent of the potatoes grown, and the remaining 13 per cent is for seed.

While Statistics Canada hasn’t been collecting consumption data for potatoes since 2011, the figures that are available seem to indicate only about half of 20- to 34-year-olds eat potatoes, whereas over 75 per cent of those aged 65 and older do.


Also, the majority of potatoes are being consumed more as a snack (again, chips and fries) than as part of a meal.


Phillips said these are two indicators that more should be done in the coming years to highlight potatoes as a healthy, versatile food – particularly with younger consumers.

So why aren’t younger people eating as many potatoes as their older counterparts?


Phillips said there are a number of possible reasons, including: there’s a lack of convenience when it comes to preparing fresh potatoes; the public has misconceptions about the nutritional value of potatoes; and people’s diets are shifting to more adventurous,culturally diverse meals.


On top of that, Phillips noted that Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) “Really seem to be more interested about their food and where it comes from, how it will impact their health and the planet, and how it aligns with their values.”


This matters because “They have growing purchasing power, and as that older generation ages out of the marketplace, (Gen Z are) going to take their place, and we need to be ready to meet them in the marketplace.”


Phillips said some producers have already been using social media as a way to connect with, entertain and educate consumers.


“People don’t want to just be told what they should know; they want to engage with stuff and have a reason to tune in.”


This is particularly important when it comes to questions around sustainability and ethical farming.


“(Gen Z are) also very cause-oriented; they’re more likely to choose a brand over another based on ethics and values,” Phillips said.


He said it’s vital to listen to what the younger consumers are saying is important to them to stay relevant in the marketplace. For example, the younger generation puts a high value on their time. So, there might be more demand for things like pre-washed and pre-peeled potatoes in the future.


Ultimately, “In order to best to serve the customer, we need to think like the consumer and see what they want, and how we can serve them. We have a great product, but we can do even better with proper marketing.”


DEVELOPING BETTER SEEDS

David De Koeyer, potato breeder and geneticist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s (AAFC) national potato breeding program, shared a bit about what goes into developing the best potato plants.


He explained that the breeding continuum has many steps; it’s a long and careful process. Generally speaking, it takes five or six years to go from a botanical seed to national trials on a new variety.


“We work with germplasm collections, (then) we develop new knowledge and enabling tools for crop development, which includes molecular genetic research, breeding research, new breeding techniques. This continuum advances to the germplasm development, where we characterize different traits and develop new strategies for breeding,” De Koeyer said.


“Finally, through the incorporation of new traits, we enter into cultivar development and collaboration with industry. AAFC is involved in different levels of these activities, and is supported by many other disciplines.”


He noted that in 2022, AAFC developed a strategic plan for science. This involved three pillars: mission-driven science, people first strategy, and organizational excellence.


The organization’s work is divided into four mission areas: mitigating and adapting to climate change, increasing the resiliency of agro-ecosystems, advancing the circular economy by developing value-added opportunities and accelerating the digital transformation of the agriculture and agri-food sector.


At the heart of it, the AAFC’s work is focused on trying to enhance biodiversity to stimulate productivity and resilience with the crops, as well as reducing the number of pests and diseases that the plants are vulnerable to through a biovigilance approach.


The work the AAFC does requires national trials to be conducted.

De Koeyer explained that this is how researchers get a robust comparison of how the varieties will do when faced with different conditions, such as soil types, availability of water, temperature, length of growing season, etc.


“As we get data from across the country, we get far greater confidence in the data that will be used to support the release of a variety,” he said.


Participating in the trials means that industry members will have the opportunity to provide direct feedback, and make sure that the varieties of crops being worked on are relevant and meet their product profiles.


For example, the AAFC’s work to combat potato wart by exploring how resistant different varieties are is essential to Canadian agriculture, but particularly potato producers in

Newfoundland, where the disease is endemic.

It’s not just about finding plants that will do well when growing, but also determining which varieties of potatoes have a longer shelf life, as that will ultimately reduce food loss.


De Koeyer said it benefits producers when the AAFC is able to get good amounts of relevant data, and analyze it effectively.


While he cautioned data “is not a silver bullet,” it’s still hugely helpful, as “It gives us an overall perspective of what genetically is needed for a variety to have a very high yield.”


HERBICIDE INJURIES

Herbicide injury can cause a host of problems for potato producers, said Andy Robinson, extension potato agronomist with North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota.


It can cause reduced stand, slow canopy closure, damaged leaves, malformed tubers, reduced yield and quantity and unacceptable compounds.


“When you have herbicides applied to a field … ideally, you want to hit the weeds you’re trying to control. But it can drift, it can volatilize, it can run off, it can be broken down by sunlight, etc.,” he said.


Robinson noted that herbicides can linger a long time after application, so it’s important to keep track of what’s been put on the fields – including before you got there.


“When you’re renting land, it’s important to know what the previous probably two cropping systems herbicides were applied, because some can last for up to two, maybe even three years on potatoes,” he said.


Vigilance is also required when it comes to equipment, Robinson said. A simple mistake like not cleaning a tank properly between applications can have a large impact.


“I’ve done the math calculations, and just a couple tablespoons of glyphosate can cause injury in a field,” Robinson said.


That’s why “We highly encourage seed growers to have their own sprayer just for their potatoes, and have a different sprayer for the rest of their crops. It’s a really easy way to potentially prevent issues; it’s a good insurance package.”


Despite your best efforts, herbicide injuries might still happen, Robinson said. The important thing is to document it early and well.


“Document the patterns. Document where it’s at in the field. Take pictures of it; fly a drone over it. Do that kind of work, because those symptoms might appear, they might be strong for one, two, maybe three weeks, and then oftentimes they slowly go away, and you might forget about it because you don’t see the leaves anymore. But then, you dig those tubers, and you realize, ‘Oh, shoot those tubers don’t look very good; they may not be very sellable.’ So, it’s really important to document that injury as soon as you can,” Robinson said. A big part of good documenting is taking good samples. Robinson reminded producers that when it comes to herbicide residue, “You’re looking for parts per million, or even parts per billion,” so it’s vital to store samples separately, and to make sure you wear a new pair of gloves between each sample you’re collecting, to avoid cross-contamination.


“If you think this might be a really big problem for you because (of) significant financial losses, or there may be litigation involved, it’s really important to have a chain of custody of that sample from the time it was pulled in the field to when it gets to the laboratory,” he said, adding that most labs can provide chain of custody forms.


For more information, North Dakota State University has an article by Robinson online at z.umn.edu/injury outlining how to sample for herbicide injury in potatoes.


Robinson also reminded his audience that while damage or injury can be caused by herbicides, they’re not only caused by herbicides; pretty much any kind of stress, including environmental, nutritional, disease, and even genetics, can cause cracking and other issues.


Sometimes, it’s even as fundamental as the seed you start with.


“You have to have good seed to have a good crop, ultimately,” Robinson said. “You’re going to put the same money into bad seed as you’re going to put into good seed – maybe more money into bad seed. So, you might as well start with good seed.”

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