McCain Foods planning for climate change with future farms initiative

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New Brunswick based McCain Foods has built two experimental farms, one in Florenceville, another in South Africa. (Government of New Brunswick - image credit)
New Brunswick based McCain Foods has built two experimental farms, one in Florenceville, another in South Africa. (Government of New Brunswick - image credit)

McCain Foods is working to make sure the nation's french fry supply is safe from the effects of climate change.

The Florenceville-based company is heavily investing in what they call "Farms of the Future," where they are using regenerative agricultural practices to better prepare for a different climate in the future.

These practices include new forms of crop rotation, limiting the routes farm equipment can take to reduce soil compaction and integrating livestock grazing onto fields.

Jess Newman, the senior director of agriculture and sustainability with McCain Foods, said the variability that climate change has brought to weather around the world has caused an "existential threat" to the potato industry.

"Think about things like really cold springs, or frosts that come too early, rain events that come at the wrong time, or when we're not used to or rain that comes way too much at once," said Newman.

"All of these things are incredibly damaging to the farmer's bottom line and all the way through the McCain supply chain to our customer, ultimately threatening that supply security."

Crop rotation

Newman said McCain Foods is using a one-in-four model of crop rotation, where a plot of land would be used to grow potatoes only once every four years.

Every other year other crops would be used to ensure biodiversity in the soil, and to make sure pests don't get the chance to embed themselves into any plot.

Submitted by McCain Foods
Submitted by McCain Foods

While the farm McCain's is using to study crop rotation is their own, Newman hopes their partner farms will soon be able to use the data collected in Florenceville at their own farms.

Newman said the company had hoped to be farther along in getting the farming data out to farmers, but like many things, COVID has delayed that.

"Ultimately the reason we're trialling these practices is to collect that data set, do that peer learning and sharing, and give the rest of our grower base who are our most important partners that comfort to adopt these practices on their own operations," said Newman.

Farming failures

Climate change is impacting crops even in places where the change has been relatively minimal.

Newman said this means with more than 15 growing locations, McCain's expects crop failure somewhere every year.

"In some of these areas we see what we would call a crop failure … maybe once in every five years, and others, it's one in two," said Newman.

"At this point, it seems like at least one location in our system will be experiencing some sort of serious impact every given year."

In a bid to make sure their crops are protected world wide, McCain's has just opened up a second future farm in a climate pretty much the opposite of Florenceville, in Lichtenburg, South Africa.

"We work a lot in the southern hemisphere, so it was really important to us that our second farm of the future be there," said Newman.

"The focus there is really, again, going to be proving out these regenerative practices in a growing region that looks very, very different from Florenceville."

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