Potatoes, naturally

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National Organic Week

Potatoes harvested during the country’s inaugural ‘National Organic Week’ (Oct. 9-16) by scientists at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's (AAFC) Harrington Research Farm in Prince Edward Island are prototypes for the industry.

The organically grown potatoes are the second harvest in a four-year project designed to come up with recommendations that will make it easier and more profitable for organic farmers to grow Canada's largest vegetable crop.

The information should also make it easier for farmers who want to make the transition from conventional to organic potato production.

"We are looking at this from many different angles," said Maria Rodriguez, manager of AAFC's Crops and Livestock Research Centre in Charlottetown, which oversees the 20-hectare organic research at the Harrington site.

"We want to know the better varieties for organic production, the best ways to control insects, diseases and weeds and which crops make the most sense for farmers to grow in rotation.

"And we also have an economist and a food scientist on the project to examine the economic and nutritional value of potatoes grown organically," she said.

In addition to local scientists, the project team includes specialists from the department's research centres in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Saint Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Guelph, Ontario and Brandon, Manitoba.

"When completed in 2012, this project will have generated a wealth of information to assist farmers in growing organic potatoes more profitably and sustainably," Rodriguez said.

Organic production, it turns out, is a bit like Rubik's Cube. There are a lot of pieces that have to line up to get it right.

Of all the crops grown in Canada, potatoes are among the most reliant on crop inputs like fertilizer and pest control products. That makes it all the more challenging when trying to grow them organically.

Researchers are hoping this multi-layered research approach will unlock the puzzle to better organic yields and better economics.

"Suppressing disease, particularly late blight, is probably the biggest hill to climb in growing potatoes organically," said Rick Peters, the lead scientist in the project.

Many Partners

One promising avenue of research is being conducted by researchers Bernard Panneton and Benoit Lacasse in Quebec and Bud Platt in PEI. They have shown that farmers can get better protection from late blight by using copper products currently available to organic farmers simply by reducing the size of the droplets in the spray and targeting the spray on the leaves.

The research team is also currently looking at seven different rotations that would not only improve the fertility of the soil and help farmers minimize disease and insect damage, but also create additional sources of income.

"These rotation plots are yielding high quality organic corn, carrot and soybean crops, so farmers will get a financial return when not growing potatoes," Peters said.

Christine Noronha's entomology team is working on assessing the impact of crops and organic soil amendments on the population of insects.

"We are studying a number of crops with proven pest and disease control properties, including brown mustard, alfalfa, sorghum-sudan grass and canola," Noronha said.

At the AAFC's Potato Research Centre in Fredericton, Gilles Boiteau is looking at insect response to pest control methods in the organic trials while potato breeder Agnes Murphy has identified some potato lines that may produce better yields and quality for organic farmers.

Also at the Potato Research Centre, Sherif Fahmy is looking at the nutritional value of the organic potatoes.

And in Brandon, data collected in Charlottetown is being analyzed by economist Mohammad Khakbazan as a model of the economic performance of the different rotations.

Organic Demand Increasing

Demand for organic products is growing. Retail sales of all organic food products in Canada were valued at over $2 billion in 2008.

In PEI there are now about 160 hectares (close to 400 acres) of organic potatoes being grown. Last year prices for climbed as high as 30¢ a pound, a premium compared with the prices for traditionally grown potato currently about 19¢/lb.

Beth McMahon is looking forward to the information and the recommendations derived from the research project. The Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network Executive Director said organic potatoes currently make up only a very small slice of the potato sector and most are produced for boiling or baking for the home.

"In my opinion, we need more organic processed products to grow the market-french fries, hash browns, potato chips and potato flour-and really open up organic options for consumers and the food service sector," said McMahon.

Organizations: Potato Research Centre, Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network

Geographic location: Canada, Charlottetown, Fredericton Quebec Brandon New Brunswick Saint Jean Guelph Ontario Manitoba

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