For the first time in recent history, Manitoba and Alberta have overtaken Prince Edward Island in potato production, according to a Statistics Canada report released Friday.
Although P.E.I. farmers planted more acres this spring than either of those western provinces, and were able to harvest the entire crop due to good conditions, it was the summer’s drought that led to poor growing conditions and lighter yields per acre grown.
“It’s disappointing, but no one is as disappointed as the family farms,” said Greg Donald, executive director of the P.E.I. Potato Board. He said he is “not surprised” however because farmers expected production to be down due to the drought.
Stats Can’s report shows that Manitoba’s production for 2020 was 2.4 billion pounds, Alberta’s was 2.3 billion pounds, and P.E.I.’s was 2.1 billion pounds.
It shows P.E.I. planted the most acres this past spring at 83,600. Manitoba planted 71,500 and Alberta planted 59,677 acres. Alberta yields per acre have been very strong the last few years, weighing in this year at 404 hundredweight per acre.
Although Manitoba’s yields were down slightly to 337.1 hundredweight per acre, P.E.I.’s yields dropped dramatically to 251.5 hundredweight per acre, where it had been hovering close to 290 the last few years.
“The difference in productivity, the yield, between P.E.I. and those provinces is water, and the lack of ability of farmers to access water here on P.E.I. And that’s reflecting in our production,” Donald said.
Governments in other provinces have been supporting enhanced irrigation and P.E.I.’s government has not, he said.
Since 2002, there has been a moratorium on high-capacity agricultural wells used for irrigation. A P.E.I. legislative committee recently advised expanding the ban “until research is available to make evidence-based decisions.”
“I know there’s [an] increasing degree of frustration and difficulties,” Donald said. “The viability of many farms, and sustainability, is in question because of the lack of access to water,” along with the trend to hot, dry summers.
P.E.I. farmers have made strides in better soil stewardship and developing more drought-resistant varieties, he said, but farmers still need water.
“Our government have been holding back the industry … and it’s now threatening the viability of farms and it’s jeopardizing quite frankly our business,” he said. “Our customers require a consistent supply of good-quality product and if we’re challenged to do that, you know that’s going to jeopardize our business with our customers.”
There are a few other factors, Donald said, including that Alberta and Manitoba grow mainly larger, heavier potato varieties for processing. Only 60 per cent of P.E.I.’s potatoes go for processing, whereas 30 per cent are table or eating potatoes and 10 per cent for seed.
Statistics show there continues to be strong demand for potatoes, Donald said, although COVID has been a bit of a roller-coaster. New potato products and the popularity of things like all-day breakfasts have driven demand, he said.
P.E.I. had been on track to produce 2.5 billion pounds of potatoes and could have outpaced Alberta and Manitoba if not for the summer’s drought, Donald said.