Erratic weather affects Canadian potato quantity and quality

A PDF of this article can be downloaded here.

Erratic weather affects Canadian potato quantity and quality

Why 2018 is a year I’d rather forget

By Shawn Brenn, Potato farmer and Chair, Ontario Potato Board, and director on the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association board.

The end of the year is always a good time to reflect on what’s happened and look to what lies ahead.

I’m a potato farmer and I couldn’t be happier to put 2018 behind me. For many farmers, but especially for those of us who grow potatoes in Canada, it was a terrible year. And it’s all due to the weather, one of the biggest influences on our farms – but also on what we eat – and the one we can least control.

I’m the fourth generation on our family farm; we’ve been growing potatoes in the Waterdown area for more than 65 years. The hot, dry summer left many of our potatoes smaller and of lower quality than normal, which means they won’t make it to market or we will receive a lower price for them.

Other Ontario potato growers struggled to get their crop planted during the wet spring or had trouble harvesting when rain and snow made fields too wet for harvesting equipment. In Prince Edward Island, Canada’s largest potato producer, a dry growing season meant potato quality defects and a wet fall and early frost before harvest left over 7,000 acres unharvested. Farmers in New Brunswick, Quebec and Manitoba also had to leave some crops in the field.

Weather problems weren’t limited to North America. Erratic weather has seen Europe’s potato harvest 30 per cent lower than normal, and the United Kingdom suffered through some of its worst drought conditions in decades, also affecting production.

It’s not unusual for one production area to experience quality or yield problems during a growing season, and for other areas to fill those production gaps. What is unusual this year is weather problems affected so many different potato growing regions around the world at the same time that we don’t have those same alternatives.

This year, large potato buyers have limited options to meet their supply needs, so we’re seeing changes in what they’re selling, like reducing size requirements so that more potatoes – which are perfectly good but just not big enough – can be sold instead of being discarded.

It also means fewer Canadian potatoes for the fresh market, likely leading to smaller packages at retail, more potatoes that won’t make the quality grade, and ultimately, higher prices for consumers.

Longer term, what this extraordinary season has highlighted is the relatively precarious nature of our food supply – and of how vulnerable erratic weather can make even a global food producer like Canada.

As weather extremes occur more regularly, farmers will need more tools in order to make sure we can still produce food. That means more drought resistant varieties and effective pest control methods since adverse weather often results in higher levels of crop pests and disease.

It also includes potatoes that don’t need as much nitrogen to grow well so we can reduce the amount of fertilizer we have to put on the crop, and varieties that can be stored for a long time without impacting quality or are particularly well suited to processing.

We’ve always taken for granted that if we can’t grow or produce something here, we can buy it from someone else who can. That might not be as easily the case in the future, so we need to look at many different solutions to ensure climate change doesn’t impact our food security.