One Quebec company, Nordany Inc., is looking to give Canadians more options for growing sweet potatoes.

Every week Ricky Roberge would find himself importing 35 to 40 loads of sweet potatoes to Canada from the United States. He found himself wondering why there wasn’t more sweet potatoes grown here? The high value return crop seemed like it would be a good fit for fresh potato and vegetable growers.

“On potatoes, we do rotation with grain corn mainly. So, the revenue is not as high,” explains Roberge in a phone interview. “We could very easily put sweet potatoes for rotation, and it would give really good ground matter when you’re planting the potatoes next year — with a much higher income also.”

Ricky Roberge
Ricky Roberge, president of Nordany Inc., holds some sweet potatoes in a field. Photo: Carlos Martin

Roberge is the president of Nordany Inc., a Quebec-based company which imports and exports potatoes and sweet potatoes. In 2018, the company launched a new endeavour — breeding sweet potato varieties suited to the Canadian climate. Roberge was contacted by Carlos Martin, who through a mutual friend, had heard Roberge was importing a lot of sweet potatoes into Canada. Martin, a research scientist, had previously worked for the International Potato Center (CIP) in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, even running several research projects at the headquarters in Peru. Martin presented Roberge with a pitch to start a Canadian sweet potato breeding program, who took him up on it.

Sweet potatoes are a tropical plant native to Central and South America. In North America, sweet potatoes are grown in states such as North Carolina and Louisiana. Most varieties grown need more than 140 days to mature and favour the warmer temperatures the southern U.S. states provide. For varieties to work in Canada, Martin knew they would need to be able to mature in under 100 days and grow in milder temperatures.

Carlos Martin
Sweet Potato Researcher Carlos Martin in a field of Nordany Inc. sweet potatoes. Photo: Carlos Martin

There have been sweet potatoes bred for Canadian growing conditions. In recent years, Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in Ontario released the sweet potato varieties Radiance and Luminance, both of which are commercially available to buy and plant.

As Martin started his work, he reached out to industry contacts for sweet potato genetic lines with short growth cycles. In 2019 he started testing sweet potato lines, planting 750 genetic lines in a non-irrigated field at Nicolet, Que. Varieties were evaluated based on if they matured in less than 90 days, root shape, number of roots produced, and flesh and skin colour. Of the 750 genetic lines planted, 65 were picked from the first-year evaluation.

An old potato storage was repurposed for the varietal trials. It was refurnished with isolation walls, artificial light and heating systems, benches, and humidifiers. During the winter it was used as a sweet potato storage and in the spring it was used to produce sweet potato slips from the selected roots from the field tests.

“With global warming it looks like the summer is extending a little bit, especially in parts of Canada and Ontario. So, now we’re harvesting everything at 100, 110 days maximum. But our target is no more than 100 days, because you never know, you may have a frost very early,” Martin explains in a phone interview.

Over the next few years, the sweet potato lines were narrowed down to four. Martin says the varieties are all are similar with a nice orange flesh colour. During the 2022 growing season, the varieties were planted at a commercial level on two farms — one in Quebec, south of Montreal, and another in southern Ontario near Niagara Falls. Martin and his team wanted to test how the varieties would do in different soil conditions. For the 2023 growing season, the three varieties were planted at the same farms again.

Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes grown by Carlos Martin’s team at Nordany Inc. Photo: Carlos Martin

One of the growers Martin has been working with is Guillaume Cloutier. Cloutier owns Delfland Inc., a vegetable farm located near Napierville, Que. Cloutier first started growing sweet potatoes after working with Vineland. A few years later he read an article talking about Nordany’s program, so he reached out to Martin to see about growing his varieties.

“I think we have tried like 50 or 60 (sweet potato) varieties from Nordany, and it’s really interesting. Right now, we have two to three that are really promising for us here for producing in Quebec,” he explains in a phone interview. “It’s really difficult to find sweet potato that is able to do yield in short time. Programs like Nordany that looks for varieties that are able to finish in 100 days is crucial for Canada.”

Nordany Inc. sweet potatoes
Nordany Inc. sweet potatoes ready for harvest. Photo: Carlos Martin

Cloutier would like to expand his sweet potato acreage, but he’s currently limited by lack of slips available for planting. This is a problem Martin and his team are working on as they move towards commercializing the Nordany varieties.

Before the sweet potato varieties can be released, there needs to be enough slips available for purchase. To do that Nordany has contracted companies in Ontario, Quebec, and North Carolina to propagate the varieties. However, for the company in North Carolina to receive the slips for propagation, the slips must first be approved and cleaned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture — which can take a year or two to happen. The varieties will be sent to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to receive registration in Canada later this year.

The research work isn’t stopping though with the four varieties. Martin and his team are still on the hunt for more Canadian sweet potato varieties.

“In June (2023) we are planning to plant over 2,000 new genetic lines, because we continue looking for something better. If we can find something the more adapted to these conditions in Canada that will be much better,” Martin says.

Header photo — A sweet potato field planted with a Nordany Inc. variety at Delfland Inc. near Napierville, Que. Photo: Guillaume Cloutier

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