In case we needed proof that nature calls the shots, just look to recent weather virtually across our country. Through most of Alberta last summer, heat and extreme dryness frustrated farmers and limited yields of all crops, including dryland potatoes.
P.E.I. growers had it even worse: their 2018 season was thwarted first by unusually hot and dry growing conditions, then by harvest-delaying extreme moisture, and then — just as machines could finally get into fields — by early frost.
And across Ontario and Eastern Canada this spring, crops are significantly delayed due to excessive moisture. Severe weather of all kinds is becoming more common of late. While farmers will always be subject to nature’s whims, there are a few options to help minimize the impact of challenging growing conditions.
Some dryland farms are proactively managing drought stress by preceding their potato crop with a year of moisture-preserving cover-cropped summer fallow. Admittedly, it is challenging to leave any field without a harvestable crop. However, we have consistently found a potato crop grown following fallow boasts an average yield benefit of two to three tonnes per acre compared to neighbouring potato fields grown following a cereal rotation.
In addition, the quality of the potatoes grown post-fallow tends to be better, since higher yields mean less rolling and jostling of tubers at harvest. Given potatoes’ high value, these yield and quality benefits make up for the loss of income the season prior.
As unusual weather appears increasingly usual, we also suggest that farmers manage their crops with less than ideal conditions in mind. Diversifying varieties can help mitigate the unexpected.
We continue to work with processors to test and trial new varieties. We’re certainly not alone in the effort. Across the industry, universities, private breeders and industry stakeholders are making noticeable strides forward in variety breeding. Already, fresh-pack farmers have some good options for more stress-tolerant varieties and work is being done to improve chipping and processing varieties as well.
Drought and heat tolerance are key priorities of breeding programs, as are early maturation and improved storability. Improved, sustainable varieties provide increased flexibility. We are happy to see that growers and processors are more willing to consider the newer stress-tolerant varieties.