P.E.I. Potato Board Seed Farm Provides New Varieties

The farm at Fox Island grew just over 40 acres of seed potatoes this year.

Published online: Oct 19, 2018 Articles, Seed Potatoes
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Source: CBC News 

The Prince Edward Island Potato Board is using its seed farm in Fox Island, P.E.I., to get new varieties into Island fields quickly and safely.

Seed potatoes start in the lab as plantlets grown from tissue culture.

These plantlets will be multiplied all winter until this storage space is full. They are then planted in the screen houses. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

They spend the summer in a screen house, before being harvested in the fall.

"The priority is to keep everything clean at this stage so it's grown in here in our screen house in an aphid-proof building," said Mary Kay Sonier, seed co-ordinator for the P.E.I. Potato Board.

 "Aphids spread potato virus diseases so when we go to the field we're starting with as clean as possible seed we can."

The mini-tubers are then planted in a field for their second season before being sold as seed.

"One of the things we're working on now is new varieties and with the tissue-culture system, it allows us to bulk up new varieties very rapidly," said Sonier.

"If there's a new variety for the processing industry or the fresh industry, and they want to get a lot of seed bulked up so they can get it into the marketplace, this process allows us to do that."

The priority is to keep the potatoes clean at this stage so they are grown in a screen house that is aphid-proof. (Submitted by Mary Kay Sonier)

Local source

The farm at Fox Island was purchased by the Potato Board in 1962. This year, they grew just over 16 hectares (40 acres) of seed potatoes.

"It's important that we have a local source of seed," Sonier said.

"If something were to happen away or there were disease issues away, it could interrupt our seed supply. This ensures our own growers have a good supply of seed for their commercial production."

Sonier estimates about 40 per cent of commercial potato acreage on P.E.I. is planted with seed from Fox Island. 

Mary Kay Sonier demonstrates how the plantlets are propagated in the lab at Fox Island. (Randy McAndrew/CBC)

Private interests

There are other farms on P.E.I. that produce seed potatoes.

"There are other private interests but I think collectively the industry believes it's important they have their own independent operation," said Greg Donald, general manager of the Potato Board. 

"To give security and minimize risk in the event that something was to happen to some of these other operations."

The mini-tubers from the screen house will be planted in a field next spring. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Donald says the Fox Island facility is also important in the introduction of new varieties.

"Just like existing varieties, it's important that they're introduced in a fashion that's disease-free," Donald said.

Disease outbreaks

When there have been disease outbreaks, the Fox Island farm has accelerated its production.

"We had to go through the same scrutiny as other seed potato farms on P.E.I. to make sure the pest wasn't here," Sonier said.

"We were able to bulk up seed quickly to replace some of that lost seed to help fill the gap so growers had a continuous supply and minimize disruption."

Sonier estimates about 40 percent of commercial potato acreage on P.E.I. is planted with seed from Fox Island. (Submitted by Mary Kay Sonier)

The Fox Island farm is owned by the potato farmers of P.E.I., who also pay the operating expenses. They set the price for potatoes sold by the farm.

"It really depends on the variety, our prices are set by the growers and we try to be competitive," Sonier said. 

"But it does vary somewhat depending on the variety if it's in short supply or that kind of thing."

The warehouse at Fox Island is full of seed potatoes that were harvested this fall. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

Sonier said all major potato growing regions have a facility like Fox Island.

"I can see us in the future looking more to new varieties and getting them into our growers' hands quickly so they can be competitive in the marketplace," Sonier said.