Saturday, December 12, 2009

Alberta Local Grown Potatoes (Conventional)

Recently talking with some friends about how potatoes are grown commercially in Alberta, I realized I know very little about how the potatoes we buy in the store are grown. We try to buy local food when we can but often don't know much more about local food than imported. I don't really know much about growing them in our back-yard either, but I'll save that for another post!

Reading up on the Alberta Potato Growers website has provided some interesting info about locally grown Alberta potatoes, some of which I'll summarize below:

  • Potato farming in Alberta expanded from 26,600 acres in 1995 to 51,000 acres in 2008
  • Compare with 300 acres in 1917 and 600 acres in the 1930's
  • 9.3% of potatoes grown in Canada are grown in Alberta (by weight)
  • 1.5% of potatoes grown globally are grown in Canada (by weight)
  • See instructions about how to grow your own potatoes in Alberta
  • Alberta potatoes are grown commercially for three different general markets:

Table Potatoes

  • What we buy at the grocery store
  • Only 5% (3.7 sq mi) of Alberta potato acreage in 2008
  • see historical downward trend, acreage amounts exclude market gardens with less than 5 acres, and of course, my back yard

Process Potatoes

  • Potatoes used to make processed foods such as french fries and potato chips
  • 79% of Alberta potato acreage in 2008
  • Acreage in Alberta devoted to this potato market more than tripled between 1997 and 2002!
  • Table and Process Potatoes are typically grown more in southern Alberta (irrigated) and seed potatoes more in central Alberta (not generally irrigated)

Seed Potatoes

  • Potatoes grown and bred to sell as seed to other growers
  • 16% of Alberta potato acreage in 2008
  • 75% (more than any other province) are exported, mostly to the United States and Mexico
  • Certified seed potatoes from Alberta are in high demand because of the colder climate, which results in fewer disease and pest problems
  • More than 100 varieties are grown in Alberta
  • Most are grown in central Alberta without irrigation because natural rainfall is more plentiful than south Alberta
  • A few growers near Edmonton occasionally apply supplemental irrigation from nearby rivers and streams
  • Thorough inspections enforce zero tolerance of bacteria and viruses
  • Seed Potato Farm Contact List - Buy seed potatoes directly from local farmers!
  • Top 10 varieties sold from Alberta are:
    • Russet Burbank
    • Russet Norkotah
    • Ranger Russet
    • Shepody
    • Atlantic
    • Umatilla Russet
    • Norland
    • Yukon Gold
    • Private Varieties
    • Other varieties

We are hoping to find local sources of organic potatoes to buy in winter when our garden supply runs out. I've come across at least one grower (Gold Forest Grains Farm) near Edmonton, and we hope to find some near Calgary.

Why Buy Organic Potatoes?

Unfortunately, conventional commercial potatoes receive more chemical application than most agricultural plants. Typical chemical application schedules used to grow potatoes in Alberta includes:

  • Fungicide applied to seed potatoes before planting (decay prevention in damp soil)
  • Pesticides sprayed during growth (weed control)
  • Fungicide sprayed every 7 to 14 days throughout summer (Late Blight fungus prevention)
  • Late Blight was what caused the infamous Irish Potato Famine
  • Conditions are generally too dry in Alberta for Late Blight to occur, but fungicides are applied anyways as a precaution
  • Chemical fertilizer, mostly Nitrogen, is applied (via irrigation in southern Alberta) from mid-May through the summer
  • Leaf tests are performed to ensure the appropriate amount of fertilizer is applied
  • Herbicide (desiccation) and/or mechanical operation (vine killing) is applied to kill the potato at the end of the growing season (August to October, depending on the variety)
  • Dessication/Vine Killing improves skin-set (toughens skin, good for shipping), bruise resistance, storage life, appearance and vine-tuber separation [note that vine killing is accomplished in the home garden by simply removing the potato vines 2 to 3 weeks prior to harvest]
  • Potato vine dessicant herbicide options include the following chemicals:
  • During storage potatoes receive a hormone (typically Chlorpropham aka CIPC) via the ventilation system that inhibits sprouting*
  • Potatoes can typically be stored up to one year

*An interesting note: A study found peeling potatoes removed 91−98% of total CIPC residue; washing reduced residues by 33−47% [Source]. There are organic sprout suppressants/inhibitors found be be effective, such as the essential oil of various herbs and hydrogen peroxide (approved as an organic sprout suppressant).

I understand that growing organic potatoes on an industrial or small scale would be more difficult, thus the higher cost of organic foods. But I wonder more and more if the organic option might more closely reflect the "real" cost of growing food in a "normal", healthy way? It is sad that the organic farming industry seems supressed (economically, politically, etc) in North America in many ways, or at least this is the perception I have. But this seems to be a trend that is already changing as we speak. The buying public is demanding it.

For now, I will continue to grow mostly organic potatoes in our backyard and buy high quality locally grown Alberta potatoes, but will be on the watch for organic options beyond our backyard. I mentioned "mostly" organic potatoes in our backyard as I have not been using organic seed potatoes, I have yet to source some organic suppliers for this.