One crop we grow really well on this Island is potatoes. Our PEI spuds are world-class quality and often win awards on the national stage. According to statistics obtained through the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, 86,500 acres of potatoes were grown on the Island in 2012. An economic impact study was completed in 2012 showing that the potato industry contributes over one billion dollars annually to the PEI economy, either directly or through spin-off effects. Now, that’s no small potatoes!!!
Last spring, I was looking for a potato operation and a potato field that I could follow from planting through to harvesting specifically for this blog post entry. It’s one thing to go into the supermarket and purchase a bag of potatoes but it is quite another to know where the potatoes come from and to watch them grow and I thought my readers would be interested to see some photographs of potato growing and harvesting on PEI. One evening in mid-May, I was heading from Summerside to Charlottetown “through the 225” as the locals refer to one of the shortcut routes between the two cities, when I came across this rather large and odd-looking black machine pulling into a huge field.
Of course, curiosity got the best of me and I did a u-turn fairly quickly and drove into the field where I discovered four tractors and machines were working at preparing the soil, fertilizing, and planting the field with potatoes. Lots of John Deere equipment moving in that field on a Saturday evening in May!
Well, I thought this was just very fortuitous timing! I had found my field to follow!!! It turns out the field in Warren Grove, near North River on the outskirts of Charlottetown, PEI, was being planted by Smith Farms of Newton, near Kinkora, in the central part of the Island.
Robert, the man driving the big John Deere tractor that was hauling the rather ominous looking black machine, was very willing to explain what the machine was. I learned it is called the “filler machine” – it brings the cut potato seed from the warehouse to the field where it is then loaded into the planter. I asked if it would be okay if I took some photographs of the machine as it filled the planter. Robert explained that I’d have to be quick if I wanted to get a picture of it as it speedily fills the planter that backs in under it. Quick isn’t the word for it – it’s more like ‘in a blink of an eye’ and then the planter pulls away from the filler machine and off it goes down the field to plant the spuds.
According to the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, there are over 100 varieties of potatoes grown in PEI but the majority of the acreage is made up of the top 30 varieties. The most common variety, Russet Burbank (which is what this field in Warren Grove was planted with), accounts for about 50% of the potato acreage grown on PEI. The Russet is a multipurpose variety used at local processing plants to make frozen French fries as well as for food service and retail bags of table potatoes (because of its slender shape, the Russet makes a great choice for baked potatoes, in particular). The Potato Board tells me that other common varieties grown on the Island include Superior (an early round white table variety), Goldrush (a long russet skin table variety), Yukon Gold (a yellow flesh table variety), Norland (a red skin, white flesh table variety), and Atlantic (a round white variety use to make potato chips.)
The Potato Board says, over the past three years, PEI seed and table potatoes have been shipped to over 30 countries besides Canada and the United States. No matter where you are, chances are you may have sampled PEI potatoes! The next time you are in your local supermarket, be sure to check the bags of potatoes to see if they may have come from the rich and fertile red soil of PEI, Canada.
On June 25th, I found the field was lined with neat rows of bright green leafy plants. The potatoes were growing well!
Over the next several weeks I would periodically drive by the field to see if the delicate white potato blossoms would appear. Sure enough, on August 8th, I found they were out in blossom.
In mid-October, it was time to harvest the potatoes. I followed the windrowers and potato harvester in the field and spoke with Andrew Smith who told me these potatoes are destined for Cavendish Farms, a processing plant in New Annan, PEI, which makes frozen French Fries. As you can see by the long slender length of these Russets, they are well-suited for French Fries!
There were literally dozens and dozens of seagulls following the harvester, looking for “left-over” potatoes in the field!
How many workplaces have a gorgeous backdrop of fall foliage like this one does! And, I was lucky enough to spend part of an afternoon in this workplace, following the harvesting equipment. There is nothing like the smell of fresh PEI soil turning up spuds on a crisp, sunny October afternoon!
The windrowers dig several rows of potatoes at once and move the potatoes over into one row. This field had two windrowers working in it. The harvester then comes along, also digging several rows at the same time, and picks up all the potatoes left by the windrowers. This process speeds up the harvesting. Andrew told me that when he moves the harvester down the length of the field after the two windrowers have first gone through, he is picking up potatoes from 11 drills, transferring them to the truck that drives alongside the harvester! The truck then transports the potatoes to the warehouse.
PEI weather is often unpredictable in fall (sometimes quite rainy) so potato farmers have to work with the weather which often means they dig potatoes late into the evening to ensure the crop gets out of the ground.
I debated what I would make to showcase the Russet Burbank potatoes that came out of the Warren Grove field. I settled on a potato puff. The Russets are a lovely white flesh potato with a somewhat dry texture that makes them a good choice for this dish. This is a suitable side dish that pairs particularly well with chicken, beef, or pork.
My thanks to Smith Farms of Newton, PEI, for allowing me to follow their potato planting and harvest cycle this year.
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