September 7, 2023
The Western Producer article:
Despite little precipitation across southern Alberta and low river levels, irrigation districts came through for high-value cash crops this year.
The 2023 sugar beet harvest is set to match 2022 yields despite fewer acres planted, and potatoes look good heading into the end of the season.
A late contract between beet farmers and the Taber-based Lantic sugar refinery resulted in some growers hedging their bets and planting other crops this year, which reduced planted acres to slightly less than 26,000 from the usual 28,000.
But according to Alberta Sugar Beet Growers executive director Jennifer Crowson, yields are anticipated to surpass those in 2022.
The year wasn’t devoid of challenges, however.
“The leaking of the (Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District) main canal was definitely a concern but they could mitigate it in a fairly timely manner. Probably not as timely as some of the growers would have liked because the uncertainty of getting things going,” said Crowson.
She also said some irrigation reservoirs are at record low levels in that district but much of the crop is spread across the Bow River and St. Mary’s districts.
Cory VandenElzen, sugar beet grower and board vice-president of ASBG, said “the crop this year looks fantastic.”
While this year’s heat posed challenges, VandenElzen said above-average yields are expected as the crop heads into the mid-September to October harvesting season.
The early shutdown of water from irrigation districts will likely affect fall preparation of fields for next season, VandenElzen said, and growers will be especially eyeing mountain snowpack levels during winter.
“We’re all aware that if we don’t get a big snowpack or some moisture this fall that next year has the potential to be very difficult. But we’re optimistic,” he said. “We’ve never lost next year’s crop in September of this year’s.”
Terence Hochstein, executive director of Potato Growers of Alberta, said seed potato farmers in the northern half of the province have not had to deal with the dry conditions faced in the southern portion of Alberta.
“They’ve had an amazing year,” said Hochstein about Alberta seed potatoes. “All kinds of water, all kinds of moisture. In some cases, touch wood, they’ve said that’s enough so, we’ll have a good crop up there.”
The harvest for field run, direct-to-production potatoes for southern Alberta’s french fry and chip processors has begun but most of the storage crop is still waiting to be pulled up, he said.
“It won’t be a home run of a crop but it will be a good crop,” said Hochstein
“But at least they were able to finish their crops off,” said Hochstein. “We need significant rainfall in the fall after harvest is done. Normally we’re done by the first week of October but the last thing this country needs is to freeze up dry.”
He added there is a specific need for a good winter mountain snowpack or “next year won’t be fun.”
The expansion The irrigation water supply issues have seen some potato growers short cereal crops in favour of ensuring adequate moisture for potatoes, which has resulted in some producers adopting different management techniques, he said. And like with sugar beet farmers, some of the usual fall preparation of fields will likely be affected by early irrigation district shut-offs.
of the McCain Foods french fry processing plant in Coaldale, Alta., which will double production at thefacility, is on track for a potential soft opening late next year, said Hochstein.
But the region’s road infrastructure needs to be upgraded as both the irrigated acres in southern Alberta and agri-food processing continue to grow. Full twinning of HIghway 3 between Lethbridge and Medicine Hat is particularly needed, he said.
“It can’t happen soon enough,” said Hochstein. “Every time you add more production, whether beets, potatoes, any crop, you need the rural infrastructure. You need the gravel roads. You need the bridges. You need everything. All these specialty crops are highly intensive as far as trucking.”
Highway twinning between Taber and Burdett, in the heart of Alberta’s potato processing region is anticipated to begin next year.
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