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What it takes to grow a sustainable potato

After 40 years of farming and despite not being cattle people, the Groot family decided to add cows to their potato farm. “We've been noticing the standard farming practices we've been doing have really been degrading the soils.

After 40 years of farming, and despite not being cattle people, the Groot family decided to add cows to their potato farm.

“We've been noticing the standard farming practices we've been doing have really been degrading the soils," Michael Groot, a farmer in Sturgeon County, said.

 "Soil is probably our most valuable resource…and once it's degraded, it's really hard to regenerate.”

In recent years, in an effort to combat climate change and preserve resources there has been a push towards more sustainable farming practices by industry, government, and farmers themselves, and the humble potato is a crop has much to gain from the sustainability movement.

John Mesco, executive director of the Potato Sustainability Alliance, an organization that “consists of growers, supply chain partners, non-profit organizations and advisors working together to improve the economic, environmental and social aspects of potato production in the United States and Canada,” said potato production is a complex and risky endeavour, and when we talk about sustainability, we are talking about managing risk.

Sustainability, said Mesco, is a powerful tool that can make a big impact in agriculture and can pay off in terms of return on investment for growers.

“Potato growers have a lot of risk on their plate as they put on a crop. It's a high-value crop; it requires large amounts of inputs and large amounts of care to make sure that it's a successful, viable crop. I think potato producers are more concerned about sustainability than a lot of other commodities,” he said.

Sustainability has also become important for investors, restaurants, and producers of potato products.

“The folks that purchase data products in grocery stores and restaurants are interested in making sure that the money they spend on food is being used in ways that enhance productivity and enhance quality and enhance sustainability,” said Mesco. “They want to know that their money is being put to use in a way that is sustainable.”

Mesco said he has seen a tremendous amount of effort to improve potato sustainability in water use, nutrient use, the use of different potato varieties and the different results different potatoes have when they go into storage.

“I'm always impressed by the irrigation technology. The water management that takes place on potato farms today is so much better than it was even just a few years ago,” he said.

Mesco said he has also been impressed by the use of smart technology to monitor things like water usage and weed control.

“Same goes for tillage or nitrogen application. There's not a farmer in the world that over-applies nutrients just because they want to; it's because they want to maximize the return on the investment,” he said.

Mesco said there has also been a move to create more sustainable potatoes.

“Maybe they use less water or they're more efficient in their use of nitrogen or they store better,” he said.

When it comes to potato production in Alberta, conditions in Southern Alberta lend themselves well to potato growing.

While the more central to northern portions, such as the Edmonton area, which includes the Groot farm, is where potato seed production occurs, said Guillermo Hernandez Ramirez, a professor at the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.

Ramirez said he would consider the potato the fourth most important crop in the world in terms of both economic outputs, but the potato is also culturally significant.

“We can see that there are some countries around the world that where they have more and more population density, they start doing more and more potatoes because it gives what they need to be able to continue to sustain their populations,” said Ramirez.

Potatoes can be grown simply or elaborately.

“Almost industrialized mechanization can be implemented, and all the packages of different modern agriculture can be implemented for monitoring potato growth but also for predicting and for storing potatoes. It can be massively industrialized, using all the technologies that we have for the benefit of that economic output, but in other (places) around the world the potato is a matter of survival,” Ramirez said.

Potatoes grown in Alberta are a high-input crop that in Canada can be quite “intensive,” when it comes to the amount of energy put into the crop, said Ramirez.

The use of chemical fertilizers has an environmental footprint, not only in their creation do they add to greenhouse gasses, but fertilizers can also contribute to nitrogen in the atmosphere when used.

Ramirez said research on developing and using inhibitors in very small amounts to fertilizers and tests with potato crops have shown “they are able to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, especially nitrous oxide, which is a very potent greenhouse gas.”

“We are not claiming that those inhibitors (are) a single silver bullet that will give the answers to everything. But it's something that can help us to gain some time to be able to keep exploring how we can continue to gain efficiencies and find pieces that are more integrated.

“Perhaps to regenerative practices or to other elements of sustainability that we can bring to the table, optimizing those rotations or looking for practices to improve soil health, and at the same time to reduce your greenhouse gas emissions and also to improve the biodiversity in those landscapes,” he said.

Back in Sturgeon County, on the Groot farm, Groot said they have experimented with “all sorts of different snake oils" through the years, including putting microbes into the soil that “haven't really worked out for us.”

“This seems to be something that's quite promising,” he said.

But it hasn’t gone off without a hitch.

Groot said they started with small five-acre cover crop plots in a corner field, which didn’t go well for them.

“Then we decided 'no' and like everything we've read has kind of said that you have to put animals on for it to work. So then last year, with the program and with the help of a neighbour who has some cows, we made it happen.”

The Groots got funding for using regenerative farming techniques because of the On-Farm Climate Action Fund from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The program, announced in the federal Budget 2021, was created to support farmers in adopting beneficial management practices (BMPs) that store carbon and reduce greenhouse gases “specifically in the area of nitrogen management, cover cropping, and rotational grazing practices.”

“We did 75 acres last year of cover crop with 45 head of cattle on it. And then that went well enough that this year we did a whole 155 acres of cover crop with 90-something cows on it,” he said.

Groot said the land is rotationally grazed and there are theories that it is more effective to keep a higher-stock density than just allowing the cattle to roam freely.

“We kind of put the cows into a small acre like a small pasture and then we move them from area to area in the field every two days,” he said.

Groot said no one on the farm was very enthused about having animals because it is a “fair amount of work,” and they are not cattle people, and it is going to take some time before they are able to see benefits from rotational grazing.

“This year is the first year we've had potatoes in a cover crop with cows," he said. "This coming fall we'll determine if there's been any real successes or not…We might see benefits in the next four years for sure. But it's going to be hard to tell right away if the benefits are real or not.”

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