by Trevor Bacque
The potato is the world’s number one vegetable. And it’s for good reason, too. Potatoes are perhaps the most versatile and easily grown vegetable around the globe. Here in Canada, Prince Edward Island is one of the country’s largest potato producing regions. At Gordon and Andrea McKenna’s Kinkora area farm, they grow fresh spuds each year for Canadian consumers. Although it’s the smallest province, PEI produces a fraction less (21.6%) of all of Canada’s potatoes after Alberta (21.8%). Their farm alone will produce millions of potatoes. Consider there are thousands of potato farms in Canada and you never have to worry about a spud shortage.
Each spring, potatoes are planted in their fields, although what makes this vegetable unique is that they do not simply grow on flat ground like most crops. Instead, potatoes are placed in “mounds” or “hills.” Having them raised in such a way ensures they received as much sunlight as possible in Canada’s very short growing season.
The potatoes are in uniformly straight rows thanks to GPS technology, which is standard in farm equipment. It guarantees machinery follows a pre-set pattern, regardless of topography.
Anywhere from two to six weeks after planting, the potatoes will come through the soil. Timely, regular moisture is ideal, but potatoes can also survive in drought-like situations as well. Potatoes will end up both larger and healthier if they receive regular moisture, though.
One of the biggest issues the McKennas contend with is pests. There are many known pests in Prince Edward Island, including aphids, which can quickly move into an area and infect potatoes, which leads to the rapid onset of diseases. Left unchecked, it can decimate an entire crop in less than a week.
“Unfortunately, bugs are smarter than human beings,” says McKenna. “They pick the perfect time and they know when you’re not expecting them.”
It’s why the family chooses preventative maintenance, the practice to pre-emptively spray plants and avoid potential insect infestations. Retroactively dealing with pests is very difficult and often does not always work. Similarly, they deal with common potato diseases ahead of time to ensure their crop will be successful at and through fall harvest. One of their top concerns is late blight.
“It’s very aggressive and it doesn’t take too much for it to start growing,” he explains. “A few potatoes can produce a million spores.”
The family sprays only when necessary and with advanced chemistries developed by life sciences companies, it means less applications since the technology has become so fine-tuned.
“Pesticides are a piece of the puzzle,” says McKenna. “It’s a resource and a tool to ensure that our crops are managed and maintained and cared for in the right manner.”
As harvest begins for the McKennas in July, specialized machinery digs up the potatoes onto a conveyor which loads them into trucks. Specialized screens ensure that rocks, stems and dirt do not damage the potatoes, a major concern for marketability.
After washing, potatoes are sorted by colour, grade, shape and even defects before going into storage, where they typically stay for up to one year.
It sounds simple, but it’s hard work. That work though, is rewarding, knowing that the community and places further afield are enjoying the fruits of the McKennas’ labour. Andrea is proud of the nutritional and social impact the food has for all Canadians.
“We’re pretty proud of what we produce here,” she says. “You know, this is really fresh local food that not only feeds a population, but it feeds our neighbours.”
DYK: 2022 was Canada’s biggest ever potato crop? Well, it was. The McKennas, along with thousands of other farmers, collectively produced 123 hundredweight, or 12.3 billion pounds, of potatoes for consumers in Canada and abroad!