Potato pursuit

Market numbers, provincial support bode well for farmers

Published on March 18, 2013

Newfoundland and Labrador is looking for a hot potato — a spectacular spud that will help kickstart the expansion of local grow operations, bringing the province towards potato independence.

At present, the province relies on potato imports from tuber-rich places like Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

The potatoes shipped in come in many varieties and under different brands, ready for store shelves.

Regular visitors to Sobeys or Foodland stores may have noticed a new variety lately. They are Annabelle potatoes, being grown by P.E.I. potato producer WP Griffin, owner of Bud the Spud.

The company has been developing its crop of Annabelles — known for its thin skin, mashability and buttery taste — for eight years.

According to John Griffin, president of WP Griffin, growing and marketing potatoes is not a simple business. Farmers must find and invest in new varieties, like the Annabelle, to meet the demand for new products and an ever-changing public palate.

“It’s really coming from about 10 years ago we found the sale of … the traditional old-type pack, the sales were going slower and slower every year,” he said.

“So we recognized we had to do something different. By developing these products, it helped keep our plants busy and provide employment here in P.E.I., and it seems to be working.”

The company is growing more red and yellow potatoes than ever before, more baby potatoes and producing spice packs and other add-ons.

“We’re trying to find newer, more interesting things, trying to bring consumers back to potatoes where they may have left for rice or pasta or something else,” he said.

“It’s been a bit of a challenge, but we enjoy it.”

The major operations in New Brunswick and P.E.I., like WP Griffin, are what our provincial farmers have to compete with.

Despite the challenge, there is clearly an opportunity for more potatoes to be homegrown.

In 2007, Blaine Hussey, a market development officer with the Department of Natural Resources, published a report titled “Wholesale and Other Opportunities In the Vegetable Industry of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Hussey noted that 35.6 million pounds of fresh potatoes were consumed in this province in 2005. Imports covered 25.6 million pounds and 10 million pounds were grown in-province.

Fresh potatoes aside, another 42.6 million pounds of processed potatoes, such as frozen hash browns and french fries, are consumed here each year, he said.

The secondary processing of potatoes was non-existent in Newfoundland and Labrador until recently, when a new processing facility was established in Deer Lake that makes french fries.

“Currently, local potatoes account for only 7.1 per cent of the (fresh) potatoes marketed at the large retail stores,” Hussey wrote, noting most local potatoes are sold direct through farms, farmers’ markets, roadside stands and smaller retailers.

Potatoes can be stored for up to 12 months, and he suggests producers in this province could meet the needs of the local market year-round if production levels increased.

The Telegram caught up with Hussey this week, to find out if there has been any change since his  report. He is now the manager of market development.

Six years on, he said, the market penetration for local products has held steady while production at provincial farms remains about the same.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of new entrants. But that’s symptomatic of the agricultural industry everywhere in Canada,” he said.

“But we certainly have the potential here in the province to grow all the potatoes that we consume. … We haven’t got there yet. But there’s a lot of renewed interest within the agricultural industry here in the province to start expanding potato acreage.”

The provincial government is tackling some of the hurdles,  to get more local potatoes to grocery store shelves.

Food safety standard certifications, typically demanded by wholesalers, are being applied to local farms. One example is the Canadian Horticultural Council’s Canada GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) program.

“Once you’ve passed all that and are certified, then we’re going to be able to get into the wholesale marketplace in a way that we never could before,” Hussey said.

The provincial government has taken over where the federal government left off in terms of local varieties and disease-resistant seed potatoes for provincial growing conditions.

Beginning in the late-1950s, a federal breeding program for potatoes was run in St. John’s, but that program wound down with the retirement of well-known provincial potato researcher Ken Proudfoot in 1998.

The fruits of that labour were shipped to New Brunswick.

“(Proudfoot) knew he was going to retire, and I guess, as there sometimes is, there was a decision made that positions are not replaced,” said Agnes Murphy, who works at the federal Potato Research Centre in Fredericton, N.B.

“He had a valuable collection of parents which, for breeders, that represents a lot of time and effort to develop parents that have good traits for adaptation and disease and pest resistance,” she said, referring to Proudfoot as a mentor.

The potato parents — for Newfoundland-born varieties like Cupids, Red Island and Exploits — are now part of a project under the national breeding program.

“I’m really interested in disease and pest resistance, building in those traits so that we can reduce the dependency on chemical inputs where possible,” Murphy said.

To focus on varieties that will do well in this province, a new Nuclear Seed Potato Propagation Facility is being developed by the provincial government at existing facilities on Brookfield Road, St. John’s.

New varieties will be grow-tested at the provincial government’s  Glenwood Seed Potato Farm.

The farm is quarantined and has more than 90 acres of cultivated land.

“One of the (varieties) that has shown a lot of promise elsewhere in the country is one called Innovator. … And we’re also looking at five or six new research varieties that don’t even have names yet. But we’re bringing them in because they’ve demonstrated the qualities that we typically look for here in the province,” Hussey said.

Potato wart and nematode worms are found here. Both can limit the amount a farmer can produce if they exist in commercial fields, and create potatoes that look less than appealing to consumers, so finding new disease-resistant varieties is key.

New varieties that do well at the Glenwood farm may be taken on by seed potato producers — who grow crops for breed uniformity and then sell to commercial potato farmers.

“So something like this Annabelle is certainly something that we can look at,” Hussey said.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com