P.E.I. Potato Farmers Still Feeling Drought

Published online: Sep 16, 2020 Articles
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Source: CBC News

Many potato fields across Prince Edward Island are not in the condition they are usually at this time of year due to the hot and dry conditions for much of July and August.

"Right now, on a non-irrigated field, if you pull up the potatoes, the row just kind of falls between your hands," said Kevin Murray, a potato farmer in Bedeque with Murray Farms Ltd.

"With no moisture, it's just — not beach sand but pretty close."

The Canadian Drought Monitor had much of central P.E.I. in extreme drought condition as of Aug. 31. While there has been more rain in September, in the first half of the month it is only about half of normal rainfall.

The leafy top of the plant typically dies off slowly before harvest, sending a final burst of nutrients to the growing potato below.

"Normally potato plants do start to die down in September because we're moving close to the primary harvest season, but these plants have been mostly dead now for a week or two," said Ryan Barrett, research and agronomy co-ordinator with the P.E.I. Potato Board.

"They've largely had a lack of moisture which caused them to, sort of, die prematurely. A combination of the lack of moisture itself and then some of the diseases that can, kind of, be brought on by lack of moisture," Barrett said while standing in a field damaged by the dry conditions.

The lack of moisture can leave the potato stunted or oddly shaped.

Barrett said the rainfall data he looks at shows some areas in central P.E.I. have been hit the hardest.

The effect of dry weather conditions will vary based on what variety of potato was planted, when and the site itself, he said.

Farmers have been using new practices and different crop varieties, Barrett said, to help improve the crop's ability to survive in drier conditions.

"We are still going to have a decline in yields this year but maybe not at the level that we've seen in some other droughts," Barrett said.

"I think that's really a credit to the growers and the ingenuity that they show and the new practices that they're employing, especially when it comes to things like improving crop rotation and improving tillage practices."

Irrigation Moratorium 

Some farmers feel that the best way to support the crop would be to have a steady supply of water through irrigation, if the rain is not consistent.

Two presentations on the provinces Water Act will be made to P.E.I.'s Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability committee on Thursday. 

Robert Godfrey, executive director with the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, will be involved in one of the presentations.

"No one has been able to to explain to the farming community why it is that our industry alone is unable to get access to resources for supplemental irrigation when required across P.E.I.," Godfrey said. 

"And the Water Act is there with very adequate controls now. So, you know, the moratorium is 18 years old and it's high time that we take a harder look at it, and we take a harder look at that through an actual scientific research project"

"We Dig What's There"

Back in Bedeque, Murray said he has been able to keep two thirds of his fields irrigated from a local pond. He said it makes a difference, but at this point the dry conditions have left much of the potato plants in the other field to die off early.

He is still a few weeks from harvest and hopes a bit of rain will fall to help. 

"We dig what's there. You have to. You can't leave them in the ground," said Murray. "You just get everything you put in. You're not going to get it all back out but what's there is there. We can't do much about it."