Manitoba potato growers face 2nd year of losses as weather forces farmers to leave crop in the ground

For a second year in a row, Manitoba potato farmers are facing major losses at the hands of Mother Nature.

Nearly 5,000 hectares of potatoes remain underground in Manitoba, growers group estimates

Heavy rains delayed harvesting for Manitoba potato producers, followed by dump of snow in early October before a killing frost ended the season. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)

For a second year in a row, Manitoba potato farmers are facing major losses at the hands of Mother Nature.

Dan Sawatzky, manager at the Portage la Prairie-based Keystone Potato Producers Association, said 27 per cent of this year's crop remains underground thanks to heavy fall rain and an early dump of snow.

"In the end we left quite a few more acres in the ground then we did the previous year," Sawatzky, whose association represents more than 50 growers in Manitoba, told CBC News on Tuesday. 

He estimates that more than 12,000 acres of potatoes (close to 5,000 hectares) were not harvested this fall before the frost set in — more than double the amount left in the ground at the end the 2018 season. 

Producers around Carberry, in southwestern Manitoba, appeared to be hit hardest this year, he said. 

Sawatzky said all indications at the beginning of the season pointed to a fairly good year for potatoes, and producers had reason to be optimistic. 

"We had kind of a reasonable start," he said, despite a dry beginning to the season. "The season was good — there wasn't excessive heat and the crop did develop well.

"We were looking at a fairly strong yield."

The weather turned in September, though. Heavy rains delayed harvesting, followed by dump of snow in early October before a killing frost ended the season.

That's especially hard for growers who had an opportunity to increase their acres of potatoes planted this year, ahead of the expansion of the Simplot processing plan just outside Portage la Prairie.

"It just makes it very challenging when you're trying to gear up to take advantage of that expansion opportunity [but] you just struggle to harvest," he said. 

This year's weather woes follow a devastating year in 2018. More than 2,000 hectares (about 5,200 acres) of potatoes were left in the ground at the end of the season.

Weather factors were also to blame last year, including a dry summer followed by a cool, wet September and early snow.

Canola, wheat impacted 

It's not just the potato harvest that was impacted.

Bill Campbell, who farms south of Brandon, said some wheat, canola and other crops went unharvested this season as well.

"It has been an extremely changeling year," said Campbell, who is also the president of Manitoba's Keystone Agriculture Producers.

"I would say in 138 years on our farm here, there is only two years where we have not completed harvest — 2016 is one, 2019 will be the other one," said Campbell. "It's pretty significant, the impact."

Campbell said while producers will be able to recoup some losses through crop insurance, it won't cover everything. 

"That money is lost," he said. "We will be able to retrieve some, but it will never be what could have been.

"When we talk about economic growth … and taxes and contributing to Manitoba's growth, that money's lost. It's gone."

Campbell believes some corn could still be salvaged, but as for the potatoes still in the ground, Sawatzky said they become next year's problem.

"It'll just mean more work in the spring preparing the land for seeding next year," he said.

With files from Marjorie Dowhos


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