For a century at least, potatoes have been one of our province’s staple crops. More recently, they’ve become a pillar of southern Alberta’s economy.
And now university-based researchers are on hand for support, as producers prepare to grow the industry still further. With a major potato processing plant now under construction in Lethbridge, industry officials predict a jump of nearly 10,000 more acres put into potato crop rotation.
On Friday, scientists at the University of Lethbridge held an open house for producers and industry representatives. The event, explained a Potato Growers of Alberta representative, gave the researchers an opportunity to explain their work.
Terence Hochstein, the organization’s executive director, pointed out discussions with university officials began 10 years ago. Two years ago, a funding package put together by the growers and their major customers – Cavendish Farms, Lamb Weston and McCain Foods – allowed the U of L to appoint a research chair in potato science.
Across Alberta, he said, about 55,000 acres are currently planted to potatoes, with about 40,000 of those contracted to processors, about 5,000 going to the fresh market, and the balance to seed potatoes. While they’re also produced in other provinces. Hochstein pointed out southern Alberta and a part of Manitoba are the only areas where they’re grown on irrigated land.
That creates challenges as well as opportunities – and points to the importance of having potato research in southern Alberta.
Graduate student Florian Dieker, working under the supervision of potato research chair Dmytro Yevtushenko, helped explain some of the projects now underway. After earning a master’s degree in Germany, he studied potato production in Africa and South America before being recruited for one of the research opportunities in Lethbridge.
Current projects, he said, include learning more about the verticilium fungus – one of the industry’s ongoing issues – as well as ways to ensure different species turn brown (not black!) when they’re fried.
While working on problems specific to Alberta, he pointed out, Dieker is also collaborating with researchers at a Washington state university as well as colleagues at the federal research station in Lethbridge.
Dieker – now completing his PhD – said he expects to see more graduate students and technicians joining the research team over the next few years. More immediately, the team is preparing for its move into the university’s new “Destination” science centre next year.
As for this year, Hochstein said prospects are “good so far,” though excessive heat slows the crop’s growth. So does a concentration of smoke in the air.
Ideal temperatures for southern Alberta’s potato crops, he said, run from about 27 C in the afternoon to about 15 or lower overnight.
But regardless of the immediate situation, Hochstein said Alberta is playing “a small part in the global potato economy.”
But directly and indirectly, he said, it already represents a $1 billion boost to our province’s health and well-being.
Source: Lethbridge Herald