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Searching for spuds: Potato farmers near Coaldale prepare for french fry facility expansion

A tractor works to plant potatoes at CP Farms Ltd. in southern Alberta in 2018. (Potato Growers of Alberta - image credit)
A tractor works to plant potatoes at CP Farms Ltd. in southern Alberta in 2018. (Potato Growers of Alberta - image credit)

About eight kilometres down the road from the McCain Foods processing facility, just outside Coaldale, Alta., Michel Camps and his family have grown potatoes at CP Farms Ltd. for more than two decades.

It's a community affair each year at harvest time, when 1,000 semi-loads of potatoes are either hauled to a nearby processing facility or sent to storage.

They've got sugar beets, grain and canola, too, but with news of a major expansion at the McCain plant, a few more rows of potatoes might be in order.

"I've got the second generation knocking at the door that potentially want to grow some potatoes as well," said Camps in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

"We're in a pretty busy area when it comes down to potato production … but we're definitely looking at some expansion."

On Monday, McCain Foods announced its largest investment in company history at its Alberta processing plant.

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Google Maps

The company is investing $600 million to more than double the size of its workforce at the plant, from 225 to 485, and double the size of its facility and output.

Construction on the expansion is expected to start later this year.

It's great news for nearby potato farmers, said Terence Hochstein, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta, an association representing about 150 potato producers in the province.

"Alberta's potato industry is doing very well. We continue to grow, year over year," he said.

"There will be some new growers, some new opportunities for people wanting to get into this business, and we're quite excited to welcome them into the family."

WATCH | Michel Camps explains what the McCain Foods expansion means for his farm:

For Mark Miyanaga, co-owner of Triple M Farms in Taber, Alta., the expansion is recognition of the more than six decades of work his family has poured into the soil of their potato farm.

His grandfather, Joe Miyanaga, lived on the West Coast in the 1940s, but he was interned and moved to a sugar beet farm near Picture Butte, Alta.

Once he was able to buy his own land, he started a market garden with fresh vegetables and produce, Miyanaga said.

"After that, two of his sons took over and started growing potatoes for a processor in Lethbridge, and from there it's just flourished."

Submitted by Mark Miyanaga
Submitted by Mark Miyanaga

Today, the farm sends potatoes to the Lamb Weston plant in Taber, the Cavendish Farms facility in Lethbridge and the McCain Foods operation near Coaldale.

Miyanaga runs the operation with his two cousins. They have fond memories of their grandpa on the farm — an incredibly hard worker who set them up for success.

"I think he'd be pretty impressed with what we do now."

More potato farmers

Even with the dozens of potato producers across the province, more will be needed to meet the demands of McCain's expanded facility.

For french fries specifically, russet potatoes are needed, which both Camps and Miyanaga grow on their farms.

Miyanaga says there's no room to expand his operation at this time, but he has heard from neighbours looking to dedicate more of their operation to potatoes.

"We're pretty open with all our information, the growers aren't really competing against each other," he said. "I don't think any potato farmer in southern Alberta wouldn't help a new guy, explain what the process is, what we do and why we do it."

Submitted by Michel Camps
Submitted by Michel Camps

That doesn't mean it's not a tough industry.

Potatoes are a high demand crop, Camps said, and they require significant investment and labour.

His farm is about 1,600 hectares. They employ six full-time workers, he said, and they bring in about a dozen more during harvest. It's not unusual for them to work 200 hours a month.

Still, there's a shared confidence any new grower will succeed in the Alberta industry.

"They'll have to learn a little bit, but I'm sure that they'll do a good job once they're in," Camps said.

Alberta's potato power

The province's success in the industry is shown in the numbers. Last year, Alberta outproduced P.E.I. — known as the country's potato capital — in potato production by weight, and on less land, according to Statistics Canada.

Miyanaga attributes the success, in part, to the province's irrigation infrastructure, which allows farmers access to a consistent supply of water to supplement natural precipitation.

"There's a lot of young, progressive farmers in Alberta.… Between that and the availability and consistency of our irrigation water, I think it had a lot to do with the location [McCain] chose," he said.

He also points to a recently announced expansion of irrigation infrastructure in the area, which will help support any farmers starting or expanding potato production.

Potato Growers of Alberta
Potato Growers of Alberta

Until recently, the St. Mary River Irrigation District (SMRID), which services the Coaldale area, did not have any more irrigated acres to offer.

But about two years ago, the federal and provincial governments, as well as the irrigators, joined together to fund the modernization of irrigation infrastructure, expanding pipelines, storage reservoirs and drainage canals.

Over the next decade, the number of irrigated acres available through the irrigation district will go from 504,000 to 584,000 — about a 15 per cent increase.

A lottery for the first 15,000 irrigated acres is underway, according to David Westwood with the irrigation district, as they expect demand will exceed supply.

Potato Growers of Alberta
Potato Growers of Alberta

Coaldale Mayor Jack Van Rijn says the irrigation expansion is a major factor in the area's continued success as a growing agricultural hub.

"Potato is one crop that needs lots of water," he said.

"We've been working on this for a while now as far as how we're going to be expanding our infrastructure to not only accommodate McCain's, but actually more processing plants of similar size in the future."

It's something Miyanaga would love to see, too — more processing plants coming to the area, not just for potatoes, but for all kinds of crops.

"We have some hard-working, progressive farmers out here that aren't scared to take a risk and try something new and just get at it."