Changes to minituber production in Ontario, has the potato industry looking at their options.

Minitubers are the first step in seed potato production. They are grown in greenhouses and then replanted in fields to be multiplied before being sold to commercial potato growers. For years in Ontario, minitubers have been cultivated and grown at the SPUD Unit in New Liskeard, Ont. run by the University of Guelph. However, the facilities have been sold and the future of minituber production is up in the air.

Peter VanderZaag
Peter VanderZaag, a potato breeder with Sunrise Potato in Alliston, Ont.

“I think we need to get more people involved in producing minitubers in different creative ways,” Peter VanderZaag, a potato breeder with Sunrise Potato in Alliston, Ont., said during a presentation at the Ontario Potato Conference on March 2, 2023. “The challenge we face now is the SPUD Unit has been sold… and now they want us to rent it for a few years and then say goodbye.”

VanderZaag himself has been involved in minituber production for decades, however not as a producer himself. He has worked as a potato breeder around the world and in 1982 he was the International Potato Center regional director for southeast Asia. He introduced new late blight resistant varieties to Vietnam, however there wasn’t anywhere to buy the seed.

The Vietnam growers decided to take it on themselves to produce the seed they needed. They started their own simple tissue culture labs in their houses and began growing nuclear minitubers. In the decades since they’ve increased production building full greenhouses and are still producing their own potato seed.

“This seems so simple and so amazing — they demystified a sophisticated technology. It’s not only being done in Vietnam now but also in other countries,” VanderZaag explained. “They grow potatoes that are used either for seed or for table. Generally, up to seven generations depending on the variety and disease pressure, you can multiply it again and keep replenishing it providing the farmers with seed.”

Tissue culture plants
Tissue culture plants growing in a substrate for three weeks at the SPUD Unit in New Liskeard, Ont. Photo: Candy Keith

Having witnessed it happen firsthand, VanderZaag believes there’s opportunity for southern Ontario potato growers to do this too. The upcoming end to the SPUD Unit isn’t the only reason VanderZaag is pushing for more local minituber production. With diseases such as potato virus Y, common scab and dickeya spp spreading through seed lots, more local seed production could reduce disease incidence and spread in southern Ontario.

“We have enough diversity of climates and places we could do more nuclear seed production in Ontario. Transportation costs, greenhouse gas emissions are all considerations. The cost of shipping seed from Alberta or Maine or wherever you come from to here — there are costs,” he added.

Candy Keith with seed grower Marc Atkinson
(L-R) Candy Keith with seed grower Marc Atkinson in the SPUD Unit greenhouse in New Liskeard, Ont. close to harvest time for the minitubers. Photo: Peter VanderZaag

The vision for the future is for a new state of the art SPUD Unit to be built in New Liskeard where research work can be done for potatoes and other fruit and vegetable crops. But on top of that, VanderZaag said they’re looking to have growers start producing minitubers on their own farms. Currently the SPUD Unit only produces 10 per cent of the minitubers needed for seed production in Ontario.

“I’ve already spoken to numerous growers here yesterday and today who have expressed interest. I’m also considering myself to build a greenhouse to do the minituber production from the plants that they could provide,” he said.

The current SPUD Unit lease is up in 2026 and until then there will be a lot of work done to ready the Ontario potato industry for the future of seed production in the province.

In an emailed statement, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) stated the SPUD Unit is a research activity operated by the University of Guelph with operation costs are funded through the Ontario Agri-food Innovation Alliance, the agreement between OMAFRA and the university. The ministry added it doesn’t have any plans to transition the SPUD to another location, and currently the university is leasing the SPUD unit from the property owner who bought the land in 2020.

Header photo — Contracted minituber production by a private greenhouse grower at New Liskeard, Ont. Photo: Candy Keith

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Ashley Robinson was raised on a mixed cattle and grain farm in southwestern Manitoba. She attended the University of Regina where she studied journalism. Following university, she has spent the better part of the past decade writing about agriculture in publications across Canada and internationally. Robinson’s agriculture writing has covered topics from rural issues to commodity markets. Since joining Seed World Group her work has focused on covering all aspects of the Canadian potato industry from planting to farm management, and agriculture in Alberta focusing on how the seed industry connects to farmer’s daily lives.