NewsOne-on-One With KPPA’s New GM

One-on-One With KPPA’s New GM

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2024 marks Susan Ainsworth’s 27th growing season working in the potato industry, but she’s new as of September to the Keystone Potato Producers Association.

Spud Smart sat down with Susan Ainsworth to talk opportunities, market trends, and navigating bumps in the road ahead.

Spud Smart: First, congratulations on the new gig with KPPA, Susan. You’ve got loads of potato industry experience, but are you enjoying the learning that’s coming with starting up in this new role?

Ainsworth: Thanks! Absolutely. I have an insatiable curiosity and feel strongly about the importance of continuous learning and growth, which is great, because there is always lots more to learn!

Spud Smart: Let’s jump right into a meaty question. Though you don’t have a crystal ball, you do have your finger on the pulse of where the industry is at. What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities coming for processing potato producers, both in the near term and further out?

Ainsworth: I am reminded of a quote by Winston Churchill which states: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty”. Ironically, I believe the opportunity for producers is imbedded in the challenges they currently face.

A perfect example of this is the movement toward more sustainable or regenerative agriculture. I feel if we can get past the semantics, definitions, and disputing [of] the motives, we can uncover solutions through an increased focus on soil health, biodiversity, and profitability. The increasing cost of capital, shortage of skilled labour, and concern over resource scarcity, such as water, all contribute to the high risk associated with process potato production. Profitability is paramount. Given adequate compensation, producers can invest in new equipment technologies to reduce their dependency on labour and invest in building their soils and increasing biodiversity, which is foundational to improved productivity and greater environmental and economic health. Measuring, quantifying and verifying these improvements so growers’ efforts can be recognized is going to take more work.

Spud Smart: One thing that’s certain in agriculture is uncertainty. Do you have advice for how growers and industry can best navigate bumps in the road ahead this year?

Ainsworth: 2023 was a very unique growing season that resulted in some growers producing the highest yielding potato crop they had ever achieved. The higher-than-normal temperatures in May and June led to rapid emergence and tuber initiation, which was followed by nearly ideal growing conditions in July.  Rainfall amounts were below average, however, so where irrigation was limited, yields were closer to average. The increased production in 2023 was a welcome change compared to previous years where yields fell below expectations. The volatility year-to-year is concerning, and I always feel humbled from an agronomist’s point of view because, despite all the hard work, every season is different and environmental conditions can sometimes trump our best efforts. With this in mind, I think we need to take a hard look at what builds resilience into our production systems and have access to the best knowledge available to make timely decisions in response to external factors. This is where research and collaboration play an important role.

Spud Smart: Talk to me about market trends. You’re right about last year’s huge crop. We’ll likely be sitting on potatoes right through into September. But what’s the market outlook if we look further out? Are you optimistic over the long term?   

Ainsworth: We were fortunate to have Vince Sgabellone from Circana speak at Manitoba Potato Production Days in January regarding Canadian market trends. He stated that french fries remain the top food item in foodservice.  He showed data to support an increasing demand for fries and noted that this growth is occurring simultaneously with the growth of the foodservice industry as a whole.  Despite some demographic shifts in consumer habits, the versatility of potatoes allows for new and different menu items to respond to new trends, so I am very optimistic about the future of the process potato industry.

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