NO SMALL POTATOES…
On Prince Edward Island farmers, growers and marketing men still talk in pounds when they are weighing up packs of potatoes and acres
when calculating land, as reports Tessa Gates after a trip to Maritime Canada
PRINCE Edward Island is known as Canadas million acre farm and potatoes are grown on 110,000 acres of it. Potatoes play such a big part in the islands economy that it even has a potato museum – the only one in Canada.
Don Anderson, whose family emigrated from Scotland and have farmed on PEI for 225 years, knows all there is to know about potatoes there, although he would be too modest to admit it. His father was shipping seed potatoes from PEI back in 1918 and today the island, in conjunction with New Brunswick, supplies 90% of Canadas export seed industry, and grows 30% of the countrys spuds.
Don worked for the Potato Marketing Board for 20 years as well as farming and is still involved in the industry development programmes and is a director of the World Potato Congress. His son now works the family farm at St Peters Bay, a mixed enterprise of 650 acres with a dairy herd and beef cattle.
"On PEI seed, table and ware potatoes are grown and in the last 20 years we have had the largest processing base here. With the new plant just opened in Sept 96, we will process 50% of the crop here," says Don.
The new plant, which has 900 workers on the payroll, has had a dramatic effect on land prices with good potato growing land costing up to $4000/acre, twice as much as five years ago, and average prices hovering between $1500-$2000/acre. Purchases of more than 10 acres of land have to be approved by the authorities to prevent absentee ownership.
Almost every grower on the island will supply some potatoes to the plant and these will mainly be used for French fries for the Wendys burger chain.
"We grow 50 varieties here, with Russet Burbank, known as the Idaho Baker, the most popular for processing in North America. This variety was discovered in 1894 by a teacher in California and is 140 days maturing," says Don. "Shepody, developed in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is also good for processing. It matures in 120 days and has made it an 11-month industry instead of a 12-month industry. McCains have the distributing rights to it in Britain."
A dry August and very wet September has affected the current crop, depressing yields. "We also have the challenge of A2 blight," says Don, adding that A1 blight was the one that caused the Irish potato famine.
PEIs leading potato packagers are the Linkletters who grow 1450 acres of potatoes for the table market and pack potatoes from 2500 acres. These are mostly sold washed and packed in 10lb bags (polythene or paper) to retail chains and institutes in the maritime provinces and central Canada. New markets are coming on stream in the US now that westbound subsidies have gone.
Seed is contracted in and Russet Burbank, Yukon Gold and red skin varieties are grown, plus barley, on the 1500-acre farm which is run by brothers Gary and Dale Linkletter and their cousins Mark and Jim, each of whom is responsible for specific areas of the business.
"We are following in our dads and uncles footsteps," says Gary Linkletter, who takes care of sales and general management. "Our brand is well known and we always ship a quality product."
The Linkletters built their packing plant themselves to keep costs down. "We put in the first polythene line in 81 and now have paper on the second line. We put through half a million pounds of potatoes a day at peak times and we can get a 10 second computer update of how many we pack," says Gary, who employs 50 staff with an additional 80-90 at peak digging and packing times.
"Being an island we have had difficulty getting transportatation here, but the new fixed link will change that – the toll on the Northumberland Strait Bridge will be cheaper than the ferry," says Gary, but he forsees harder times generally for PEI potato growers.
"I think the market place will change for the turn of the century and we can expect a couple of years of grief sooner or later but generally I am optimistic for the future."
Prince Edward Island is Canadas smallest province but is the countrys largest potato producing area and has the highest yields per acre.
Don Anderson (above left) has been involved with the potato industry all his life. Gary Linkletter (above right) is part of an innovative farming partnership that grows and packs potatoes for retail sales.