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Staying Sharp

Canadian seed potato producers are keeping their edge and staying in the game amidst tough competition, volatile markets and consolidation.

gord-vissers

Potatoes are Gord Visser’s passion. This third-generation seed potato producer is the owner of Norbest Farms, located near Edmonton, Alberta. All photos courtesy of Gord Visser.

Canada’s natural advantages for growing high-quality seed potatoes are well known: harsh winters break up pest cycles while summers are temperate with long days and cool evenings, most areas experience adequate natural rainfall, and coast to coast, fertile soils promote healthy plant development and growth. These conditions are especially conducive to producing clean, high-vigour seed. From east to west, growers also have easy access to major markets via road and marine transportation.

Canada’s long history of potato production—the first recorded potato exports were from Prince Edward Island in 1776—has also played a significant role in making the country’s seed potato industry a global leader. The legacy of centuries of production experience, passed from generation to generation, has engendered some of the most skilful and knowledgeable growers in the world.

All of these factors have helped build a multi-million dollar industry, with almost $40 million in seed exports alone in 2010–2011.* However, to survive in today’s marketplace, growers are also relying on other means to keep sharp and remain competitive.

Commitment to Quality

There is nothing more important to Canadian seed potato growers than quality, and this is fundamental to success, says Bob Watson, owner of Salmon River Farms. “The bottom line is a quality product, because quality sells and quality gets a premium,” says Watson, who has been growing seed potatoes for 32 years south of Grand Falls, N.B.

Watson says that in addition to using available natural resources, there are other key factors influencing a growers’ ability to keep operations profitable in a challenging industry—and adopting new technologies is a big one.

Growers’ efforts to keep up with industry innovations such as technological advances in equipment, disease testing, new varieties and best management practices have directly influenced Canadian seed potato crop quality.

Watson’s farm operation has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, shifting from labour-intensive to highly-mechanized production methods. This has created efficiencies in production as well as increasing seed potato quality, he says. Disease testing also looks very different today than it did two decades ago. Lab-based tests, such as the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and the polymerase chain reaction are used to complement visual detection in most instances.

Norbest Farms’ harvest crew enjoys a break beside the harvester.

Norbest Farms’ harvest crew enjoys a break beside the harvester.

“From a lab standpoint, testing has moved ahead. We’re able to recognize more quickly and accurately if there is a problem in a seed lot,” says Watson.” As well as visual inspection in the field, we now also use lab-testing techniques such as ELISA and PCR testing to detect diseases that are not always readily visible in the field, such as those caused by viruses.”  He adds that testing may be expensive, but the market is asking for it.

Depending upon the market they’re serving, growers perform tests on random samples of seed tubers, such as grow-out and laboratory tests, to provide quality assurances of their seed lots to customers. “Most growers would recognize it is a requirement of the marketplace,” says Mary Kay Sonier, seed co-ordinator for the P.E.I. Potato Board. “Using post-harvest test results also helps us to maintain a local environment that is good for seed production because we’re keeping our virus inoculum to a minimum,” she says.

Gordon Visser, a third-generation Alberta seed potato producer and owner of Norbest Farms, located near Edmonton, is also embracing new technologies in his commitment to quality. He says his ability to deliver a consistent, top-end product is essential to his business, and the latest innovations in equipment, such as using global positioning systems and field-mapping in his tractors, help him to do that. However, it’s not just the machinery but the farming practices growers are adopting that are increasing seed potato quality, according to Visser.

The bottom line is a quality product, because quality sells and quality gets a premium.

– Bob Watson

“As growers, year in and year out we have to produce the same quality seed potatoes. Every year, we have different conditions and we have to be very good managers. Our growers are now more educated and understand more of the practices that have to take place for them to grow a good quality crop. We have to be vigilant with those practices. I’ve seen seed farms fall by the wayside that couldn’t do that. Those management practices are changing the industry,” he says.

Growers are also focused on traceability and record-keeping as part of those best management practices. “Everything we’re doing now, we’re documenting and measuring—how much fertilizer you put on a piece of land, what type of production you get out of that land, spraying, irrigation and so on. We’re monitoring all of our agricultural practices and eventually we’ll be able to trace back to exactly what piece of land certain potatoes came from, and whether they were sold for fresh or seed,” says Visser.

Innovations in new varieties are also important to Canadian seed potato growers. “We have a real ambition and a vibrant view on new varieties. All the way from Prince Edward Island to Western Canada, we have people looking for new varieties that will serve the market,” says Visser.

Matthew and Sarah Visser help out at the family-owned and operated Norbest Farms.

Matthew and Sarah Visser help out at the family-owned and operated Norbest Farms.

Watson would like to see Canada go further in developing new varieties to address international demand. “Certain countries want certain varieties, and they are the customers—you’ve got to be able to produce them,” he says. Private and public breeding programs are addressing this issue; however, Watson says Canadian stakeholders must understand their competition and where the marketing opportunities are.

The Ties that Bind

Working hard to gather this type of information is the Seed Potato Sub-Committee of the Canadian Potato Council, which serves as the national stakeholder body for the Canadian seed potato industry. Representatives from across Canada come together to discuss a wide array of issues affecting the sector, such as international trade controversies, disease threats, new varieties, as well as market development. Both Watson and Visser, who respectively serve as sub-committee chair and co-chair, say the national sub-committee is an industry strength.

“The fact that we can sit down as seed-producing areas from British Columbia all the way to P.E.I. and talk about our industry, and look at ways of improving it and techniques for doing the job better—whether it’s new types of technologies, chemicals and sprays or Canadian Food Inspection Agency certification changes that need to be made—I think it’s a real advantage. We have input as an industry and I think that’s really helpful,” says Visser.

As well as resolving regulatory issues with the CFIA, working as a group is also an effective way to improve international trade initiatives, says Sonier. “The seed potato sub-committee works with the CFIA to help identify potential markets and improve market access,” she says. The sub-committee is also involved with many international organizations that set trade standards and facilitate trade. “It keeps us current and it makes international trade a little bit easier,” she adds.

Watson says the sub-committee and CFIA have a good working relationship where the give-and-take approach benefits everyone. “Rather than a purely governmental approach, it becomes a joint effort between the seed industry and the government, working together to make things more efficient for them and our industry.”

The sub-committee also forms working groups on many topics, from disease mitigation to market development, in order to further the health and evolution of the seed industry. For example, one initiative called the Canadian Potato Export Market Development Strategy Working Group, chaired by Sonier, also works with the CFIA setting priorities on international trade.

“Marketing is a big issue for Canadian seed producers,” says Sonier, “I think they’re quite good at it, but it’s something they have to stay on top of because markets can be so volatile. It’s so challenging these days to make a living growing potatoes that you have to be able to market every little bit you can.”

One international marketing program currently underway is the Potatoes Canada project. Since it’s inception in 2008, activities have included brand development and promotion, participation in international trade shows and variety trials, fielding inquiries and forwarding contacts to Canadian exporters, and work with public and private Canadian potato breeders. “If we can get a stable of Canadian varieties, then this will help our growers and dealers maintain their competitiveness in the global market,” says Sonier.

The end-date for the Potatoes Canada project is March 31, 2013, but there are plans to put together a proposal for extending the initiative through the next round of Growing Forward 2.

Research is also high on the sub-committee’s priority list. “A key component to being competitive is knowledge and information from research that enables our industry to adapt to environmental changes,” says Watson. Enhanced research efforts are needed to support the constant production changes required to produce high-quality seed, he says. Presently, the sub-committee actively supports research in the areas of effective disinfectants and their application methods as well as mineral oil application to minimize the spread of potato virus Y.

In this high-stakes world, all three industry leaders agree that one major contributor to the cleanness and quality of the country’s seed potatoes is the national Seed Potato Certification Program, administered by the CFIA. “The fact that Canada has one certification program throughout the nation is really important. If a customer is going to be buying potatoes in B.C. or P.E.I. the tolerances for disease will be identical. Customers feel comfortable because our national program gives them some assurance that the quality is the same from one end of the country to the other,” says Visser. “As a nation, as a seed potato industry, we stick together and we hold our certification program together—with many differences in our growing areas. I think that is precious.”

Canada’s national unity in its programs and the communication between federal and provincial entities, as well as between individual farmers, is at the heart of a dynamic and innovative industry. Increased communication between all stakeholders, nationally and internationally, has strengthened all sectors of the industry as well as the position of individual growers in the marketplace.

However, one key factor to producing high-quality seed potatoes cannot be overlooked, says Visser—the simple love of growing potatoes. “Seed potato growers are passionate about what they do and they are concerned about doing it better,” he says. “Our customers want consistent quality. As a grower on the ground, you try to improve whatever you’re doing to make that happen.”

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