The State Of The Potato
An Interview With Kevin MacIsaac, General Manager, United Potato Growers of Canada
Blight has made the news a great deal since our government halted fresh potato exports to the U.S. in the fall. Kevin MacIsaac, GM for United Potato Growers of Canada explained more about the challenge to farmers: “Blight is probably the number one threat to potato production in most areas of the country.” He goes on to describe that Phytophthora Infestations thrive in areas of high moisture, humidity and high temps (environments where potatoes are typically grown). Hope is on the horizon, though, with MacIsaac reporting encouraging breeding programs that are developing resistant varieties: “Significant improvement is being made and we are getting close”. He sighted some “Innate Varieties” released from the JR Simplot breeding program which incorporated the genes for blight resistance. Now the challenge will be to obtain acceptance by the marketplace and consumers.
In the meantime, farmers are using spore traps and weather forecasting systems to allow reduced spray applications. The prevention of late blight does continue to be a large component in production cost, adds MacIsaac.
MacIssac also commented on queries about the overall cost of producing potatoes, stating that the “cost of production to grow an acre of potatoes is high, compared to grain or soybean crops.” Although it varies slightly between regions, the cost per acre for the 2021 year is around $3,000. With the cost of fertilizer at almost double what it was as well as increases in fuel and land rent, cost of production is expected to increase substantially beyond the 35% increase the past two years have already seen. MacIsaac reports that trucking rates have increased so dramatically that, for some long distance markets, the freight is actually of a higher worth than the potatoes themselves.
When responding to the question about the current actual cost of producing a ten pound bag of potatoes, MacIssac worked the cost of production over the yield $3000/24000lb, ending up with a cost of about $1.25 per 10lbs of potatoes, but this does not include packaging, labor grading, and other expenses. “Growers need to get increases in their negotiated chip contracts to remain profitable and competitive.” says MacIssac.
Demand for potatoes and potato products have returned to pre-pandemic levels and are now climbing, reports MacIsaac who goes on to explain that the call for table potatoes surged in the early days of Covid-19, but that french fry sales dropped drastically in the same period as most stayed home and prepared meals as opposed to restaurant dining. Drive thrus staying open and adjusting to the increased need as well as services like “Skip the Dishes” and “Uber Eats” meant that the french fry drop was short lived. French fry sales are surging now with Asian Countries leading the way in demand. Due to transportation and logistics issues, including container constraints, Canadian producers are unfortunately unable to keep up with the demand. Although table consumption has returned to more normal levels, MacIsaac reports that their sales are still very good. The real star of the past couple of years, though, has been chip sales, with consumers turning to their favourite foods in these challenging times.
Norfolk County farmers are especially valuable contributors to Ontario’s early season table varieties, as well as early out of field chip contracts. MacIssac says that the light sandy soils and early spring allows the crops to be planted and harvested early.
MacIsaac is encouraged by the refreshed outlook on potatoes as a health food: “We have fought our way back from the low days of the Atkins Diet fad. We have built on the reputation that the potato is a great source of potassium for heart health promotions as well as high levels of Vitamin C.” Their nutrition logo (pictured here) has been helpful in promoting the benefits of potato consumption.
In addition to their general health benefits, MacIsaac pointed out that Canadian potato growers are held to the high standards of the PMRA (operated by Health Canada), ensuring that only safe, nutritious potatoes make it onto Canadians dinner plates.