Tag Archives: Prince Edward Island Potato Board

From Field to Table: Potato Growing and Harvesting in Prince Edward Island

Part of my objective with this food blog is to showcase food products produced on PEI and the producers and farmers behind them.  In this story, I will introduce you to Lori Robinson, a fifth generation PEI potato farmer.  Lori is Farm Manager at Eric C. Robinson Inc. in Albany, PEI.

PEI Potato Farmer, Lori Robinson
PEI Potato Farmer, Lori Robinson

I hope that this feature story will shed a little light on just where the bags of potatoes that you pick up at the supermarket come from or where the potatoes that go into making potato chips originate.

For the land mass size of our Province, PEI produces a lot of potatoes. According to the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, there were 89,000 acres of potatoes grown on PEI in 2013.   The Board tells me there were approximately 45 varieties grown in commercial quantities and more than double that amount when those that are being grown in test plots or market gardens or for limited specialty markets are included.  An economic impact study completed a little over a year ago determined that the potato industry is worth just over a billion dollars annually to the PEI economy directly and in spin-off effects.[1]

Individual potato farms on PEI range in size.  The Robinson farm grows around 500 acres of potatoes annually in rotation with soybeans, barley, and forages.   For the past five months, I have been following Lori from the time she planted the spuds in the ground back in May to their harvesting in October and ending with the washing and packaging process that is now, at the time of writing, underway at the farm.

Let’s begin by finding out what led Lori in her career choice to become a potato farmer.  I think it would be fair to say that Lori grew up with potato farming in her bloodline.  Her great, great grandfather began growing potatoes in Augustine Cove, PEI, in the early 1800s and successive generations have continued the tradition.  She says her decision “to become a potato farmer was part tradition, part general interest in all things science based, and part desire to work with other members of her family in a family-owned and operated business in PEI”.  By the time Lori was in her mid to late teens, she knew what her career path would be – she would study agriculture at university and become a farmer.

Lori holds a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from the University of Guelph where she majored in Agriculture Business.  While Lori will be the first to tell you her university degree did not specifically teach her much about growing potatoes (she learned that by doing), her education did teach her how to think critically, solve problems, and manage human and financial resources.  These are all skills useful to today’s commercial farmers.  Farming is much more than planting seed in the ground and waiting for the produce to grow.

In 2013, Lori grew 15 different varieties of potatoes.  This year, 35% of their crop will be used to make potato chips at Frito Lay, 20% will be used for seed, and 45% will be for table stock – the ones that will make it on to our dinner tables. The seed potatoes will be used to plant the farm’s crop next year and also to sell to other potato growers.  The potatoes in the large storage bin behind Lori in the photo below are next year’s Norland seed. 

Today’s commercial potato farming is very scientific and controlled.  Lori points out that “seed potatoes must be inspected in the field by Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) agents and then tested in an accredited laboratory to ensure that disease levels (viruses) are below a certain percentage before the seed receives certification to be replanted the following year”.  It is interesting to note that seed potatoes can be used as table stock but table stock potatoes cannot be used as seed.

The Island spuds will travel.  Lori’s farm sells both the seed potatoes and table stock in Canada and the United States while the “chipstock” (those used to make potato chips) will be sold in Canada and the United States as well as in Indonesia, Thailand, and Guatemala.  You just never know where you might be eating an Island potato!

All professions have their challenges as well as their sources of satisfaction.  Lori says her biggest challenge is finding an adequate number of staff to work on the farm and in their packing house. She currently employs 14 year-round, full time staff and 4-5 seasonal employees from late September to late June. In terms of job satisfaction as a potato farmer, Lori has this to say:  “Harvesting a good crop of high-quality potatoes that I eventually see in our local Superstores provides me with a great sense of satisfaction.  No two years in potato farming are ever alike.  Many new challenges come up every year, every growing season.  There is always something new to learn about farming.  The need to overcome these challenges to remain successful and the desire to learn new things are what motivate me and make me passionate about my job as a potato farmer.

Lori has been potato farming for 20 years, continuing on in a long line of successful potato farmers in her family.  I asked her what she attributes the success of her potato farm to.  She says her predecessors “recognized the importance of good land stewardship in order to achieve the balance between economic viability and environmental sustainability”.  Lori has carried on these traditions and philosophy while adding a few of her own ideas along the way to maintain the success of their potato farming operation and carry it into the future.

Lori is very much a hands-on farmer.  She actually gets on a tractor and works in the fields herself in the spring doing land preparation work that occurs prior to planting.  On May 29, 2013, when I arrived at a huge long field waiting to be planted in North Carleton, PEI, I found Lori and her crew planting Dakota Pearl potatoes. That’s Lori up on the planter on the right-hand side checking to make sure things are working as intended.

The farm operates with 7 John Deere tractors, 1 planter, 2 sprayers, 7 tandem trucks, 2 windrowers, 1 harvester, and 3 telescopic pilers.

Farm sizes and farming methods and machinery have changed over the years for sure.  I asked Lori what she sees as the biggest changes in potato farming over the years.  For her, one change really stands out – input costs for potato farming continually increase while the price farmers receive for the potatoes is relatively unchanged from the days when her grandfather sold potatoes.  She also says that a big change has been in the advancement of technology, mainly in the use of GPS for field operations.  Lori also notes that, while the Robinson farm has remained relatively the same size since she started farming 20 years ago, most well-established farms on PEI have grown larger at the expense of a number of smaller farms going out of business due to financial strain or lack of a succession plan.

So, let’s look at the timeline of the potato season at the Robinson farm on PEI.

May 29, 2013 – Planting

Potato Seed (aka potato sets)
Potato Seed

It all begins with the potato seed for this field of Dakota Pearl variety.

Loading the Planter with Seed

And, well-tilled fertile soil.

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And a planter full of potato seed along with some fertilizer.

A good John Deere tractor helps, too!

Planting potatoes
Planting potatoes

And, the seed is in the ground!

June 20, 2013 – Fertilizing and Hilling

Field work continues through the growing season to ensure a good crop of potatoes (yes, that’s the Confederation Bridge in the background and, yes, PEI soil really is that red!).

Fertilizing and Hilling the Potatoes
Fertilizing and Hilling the Potatoes

July 2, 2013 – Potato Plants Growing

By early July, there is evidence that the potato plants are growing well – look at that gorgeous emerald green color against the rich red soil of PEI!

July 20, 2013 – Potato Blossoms

A drive by the field in mid-July reveals that the Dakota Pearls are out in blossom!

Potato Blossoms
Potato Blossoms

The field is abloom with white blossoms that have tiny bright yellow centers.

This is a super long field!

September 30, 2013 – Harvesting

By September 30th, harvesting was underway on the Robinson farm.  On this day, I found the crew harvesting the Norland variety (deep red-skinned potatoes) in Albany, not far from the Confederation Bridge.

Two windrowers (one two-row and one four-row) were working the field in advance of the harvester, and moving the freshly-dug potatoes over into the drills where the harvester would pick them up while digging two more rows of potatoes itself at the same time. 

This means that the harvester is picking up a total of eight rows of potatoes as it moves down the field.

The harvest days are long and dependent upon good weather and, of course, no mechanical breakdowns.

Once the truck is full of spuds, it heads to the warehouse and an empty truck comes alongside the harvester to be filled as they move in tandem down the long drills of potatoes.

Heading to the Warehouse
Heading to the Warehouse

At the warehouse, the spuds are offloaded from the truck on to the conveyer belt that takes them into a small grading house just outside the warehouse where three employees remove any stones, plant particles, or damaged or spoiled potatoes.

From there, via conveyer belt to a bin piler, the potatoes make their way into a huge warehouse that is divided off into separate bins for the different varieties of potatoes.

In the photo below, the man is standing on top of 1/2 million pounds of potatoes in order to insert a temperature probe down into the pile of potatoes to monitor any significant rises in temperature in the middle of the pile which would signal attention needed.

The warehouse is temperature-controlled to maintain the freshness and quality of the potatoes.

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By the end of the first day of harvest, 3/4 million pounds of potatoes will have been dug and stored in the warehouse.

Three different sizes of the red potatoes dug on this day will be destined for different uses.  The smallest on the lower left of the photo below are mainly sold for restaurant trade where they would be roasted or baked.  The next size up are sold in 2 lb or 3 lb bags to grocery stores.  Consumers would typically purchase these potatoes to use for roasting or baking at home.  The largest of the three sizes are sold in 5 lb poly and 10 lb paper bags to grocery store chains in Canada and the United States for sale mostly as baking potatoes.

In the photo below you can see some of the freshly dug Norlands I brought home with me after my field visit.  You’ll find the recipe I used them in at the end of this posting.

Early November, 2013

Before the potatoes make their way to market, they are graded, washed, and packaged on the farm.

Grading Potatoes
Grading Potatoes

 

Bagger Machine
Bagger Machine

Once the potatoes are packaged, they are ready for shipping to markets.

Pallet of Potatoes Graded, Washed, and Packed Ready for Shipping
Pallet of Potatoes Graded, Washed, and Packed Ready for Shipping

 

Small Bags of Potatoes Ready for Grocery Stores
Small Bags of Potatoes Ready for Grocery Stores

Working with potatoes day in and day out, I was curious as to Lori’s favourite potato dishes.  She tells me her favourite way to serve potatoes is to simply toss some small red potatoes with olive oil and herbs and roast them in the oven.  She also likes the potato lasagne recipe found on the Prince Edward Island Potatoes Website.

There is nothing like fresh produce straight from the rich red soil of PEI.  The day I visited the Robinson farm during harvesting season in early October, I brought some of the Norlands home with me.  These beautiful red-skinned variety potato with white flesh are a multi-use potato (they are good boiled, roasted, baked, in salads, and scalloped).  I am presenting them here in my favourite old-fashioned scalloped potatoes recipe.

 


[1] Source:  Prince Edward Island Potato Board, 30 October 2013

My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Old-fashioned Scalloped Potatoes

 

1¾ lbs. potatoes (about 3 medium-sized), peeled and sliced about 1/8” thick

1 medium onion, sliced in rings

1½ cups milk

1 tsp liquid chicken bouillon

½ tsp Dijon mustard

2 tbsp flour or cornstarch

Pinch nutmeg

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 tbsp melted butter

½ cup grated cheddar cheese

Paprika

Method:

Preheat oven to 350F.

Assemble ingredients.

Spray or grease a 1½-quart casserole.

Place a layer of sliced potatoes in casserole.

Slicing the red-eyed potato
Slicing the red-eyed potato

Add a layer of sliced onions.

Repeat potato and onion layers to fill casserole.

In microwaveable bowl, whisk together the milk, chicken bouillon, Dijon mustard, flour or cornstarch, nutmeg, salt, and pepper.  Microwave for about a minute, then stir and add the melted butter and 2½ – 3 tbsp. grated cheese.  Microwave 1-2 minutes, just until mixture is heated and starts to thicken slightly, stirring once or twice.

Pour warm sauce over the potatoes and onions in the casserole.

Sprinkle with remaining grated cheese and paprika.

Bake, covered, for about 1 hour.  Remove cover and continue to bake until potatoes are fork tender, about 20 minutes, or so.  Remove from oven and let sit 10-15 minutes before serving.  Serves 4-6.

Serve with ham and your favorite side vegetable.

 

Scalloped Potatoes
Scalloped Potatoes

Tips:

Using whole milk or a blend of whole milk and cream will make creamier scalloped potatoes.

Removing the cover during the latter part of the baking process will give the scalloped potatoes a nice crust on top.

Scalloped potatoes have a tendency to boil out of the casserole.  To avoid a messy oven clean-up job, place a piece of tin foil on a large baking pan and set the casserole on it.  Lightly spraying the tin foil will also make it easier to remove the casserole from the baking pan should the contents bubble out.

 

My thanks to Lori Robinson for allowing me to follow her potato operation over the past season and for answering my multitude of questions.

 

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Follow the PEI Potato Farmer! From Field to Table

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. 

Filler Machine Loads Seed Potatoes Into Potato Planter in Warren Grove, PEI [19 May 2012]
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!

Preparing to Plant Russet Burbank Potatoes in Warren Grove, PEI [19 May 2012]
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. 

Planting Potatoes in Warren Grove, PEI [19 May 2012]
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. 

 

Bags of PEI Potatoes in Retail Store

On June 25th, I found the field was lined with neat rows of bright green leafy plants.  The potatoes were growing well!

Potatoes Starting to Grow – 25 June 2012

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.

Potatoes Blossoms [8 August 2012]

Russet Burbanks in Blossom [8 August 2012]
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!

Harvesting the Russet Burbank Potatoes in Warren Grove, PEI [17 October 2012]
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!

Potato Harvesting in Warren Grove [17 October 2012]
Potato Harvesting in Full Swing in PEI [17 October 2012]
 

Potato Harvesting in PEI [17 October 2012]
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.

Windrowing and Digging in the Evening [17 October 2012]
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.

Potato Harvesting at Night [17 October 2012]
 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.

Duchess Potatoes Made with PEI Russet Burbank Potatoes

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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