Manitoba potato growers now have access to sugar content tests through Gaia Consulting.

Despite all of the acres of spuds bound for french fry production, Manitoba had been missing something — a sugar testing lab. Gaia Consulting in Newton, Man. saw that as a business opportunity.

“It’s kind of been an area that has been underserved for a number of years. And since we already do a lot of independent research for a lot of different organizations with potatoes, it’s sort of a natural progression for us to do impartial testing for sugar samples,” Darin Gibson, with Gaia Consulting, explains in a Zoom interview.

Sugar content tests allow growers to monitor sugar levels in field and storage to keep potato crops in the best possible condition for shipping to fry and chip processors. Prior to Gaia setting up a testing lab, most growers in Manitoba didn’t have access to the tests, however many growers did work with American storage company Techmark Inc. who does sugar content testing.

Gibson and his wife Debbie Jones worked with Todd Forbush, vice-president and storage systems engineer at Techmark, to construct and get their sugar testing lab up and running. Jones runs the lab, as she has a lab background having worked for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, while Gibson has handled business meetings with growers and processing companies.

French fries sugar test
A photo of french fries which were experimented on using a sugar content test at Gaia Consulting. Photo: Gaia Consulting

One of Gaia’s first customers has been Simplot who has paid for their growers to have sugar tests done during the 2020-21 storage season. Simplot has been increasing its agronomy offerings to growers since expanding its Portage la Prairie, Man. plant. The plant was expanded from 180,000 to 460,000 square feet, more than doubling its potato requirement. Manitoba growers have ramped up potato acres to fulfill needs.

“(Manitoba) growers are innovative and ready to engage it. Also, the growing seasons are different each year and can be challenging to grow potatoes. So, I feel like there’s a lot of opportunity for the sugar program to benefit us there,” Jolyn Rasmussen, senior manager of raw development and sustainability for Simplot, explains in a phone interview.

George Moir, who is the field and storage manager of Marginet Family Farms at Treherne, Man., was one of the Simplot growers offered sugar sampling. By sugar testing their crops in storage Marginet Family Farms were able to raise the storage temperature and improve the colour of the tubers.

“Because of the (growing) season that we had last year, the crop going into storage, it was probably not fully mature. We knew that we were going to have some colour issues, which was brought on by the sugar levels that are in the tuber. So, when you get a colour issue in storage, you want to do what you can to bring down those sucrose and glucose levels,” Moir says in a phone interview.

Through the Simplot program, Gaia Consulting was able to adjust their testing system to sort out any kinks before expanding to work with more Manitoba growers during the upcoming storage season. Throughout the winter, Gibson attended various grower meetings and met with growers virtually to talk about Gaia’s new offering. Gaia is also in discussion with McCain Foods at Carberry, Man. about how sugar testing can assist them.

“We’re working out how the samples are going to be picked up. We are going to have some sort of pickup service throughout the growing areas. We recognize that the growers are very busy people, and they don’t want to be driving samples across the province,” Gibson says.

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Ashley Robinson was raised on a mixed cattle and grain farm in southwestern Manitoba. She attended the University of Regina where she studied journalism. Following university, she has spent the better part of the past decade writing about agriculture in publications across Canada and internationally. Robinson’s agriculture writing has covered topics from rural issues to commodity markets. Since joining Seed World Group her work has focused on covering all aspects of the Canadian potato industry from planting to farm management, and agriculture in Alberta focusing on how the seed industry connects to farmer’s daily lives.