An about-face by Mother Nature should translate into good quality and average yields for the Prince Edward Island potato crop, grower-shippers and industry officials predict.

How strong markets will be, however, when significant volumes start shipping from the island in early October, is another matter.

Dry conditions in August and early September helped make up for a very rainy first half of the growing season, shippers said.

Because of the excessive rains, late blight has been a concern of growers this season, said Greg Donald, general manager of the Charlottetown-based Prince Edward Island Potato Board. But sunny, dry weather in late August and early September had kept the disease at bay, he said.

“The quality seems very good,” Donald said. “By all accounts, I would describe it as an average crop.”                                                                                      

Ironically, by the second week of September growers were happy to see rain, which should help russets size up, Donald said. With some russets dying earlier than usual this year, sizing could be on the small side, though in mid-September it was too soon to tell for sure, said Don Read, sales manager of the PEI Vegetable Growers Co-op Association Ltd., Charlottetown.

The recession and soaring input costs were among the reasons that led growers to plant fewer acres this year, said Donald and Brian Beaton, potato coordinator for the Prince Edward Island Department of Agriculture, Charlottetown. Fertilizer prices, for instance, have doubled over last year, Beaton said.

About 85,000 acres of potatoes were planted this year, down from 92,500 last year, Beaton said. But growers and officials said production could wind up being similar to 2008-09, when 3,500 acres went unharvested because of heavy rains.

On the demand side, Read expressed some trepidation as the Prince Edward Island harvest nears.

“It seems like there are a lot of potatoes in the U.S., and it seems like demand is very weak,” he said. “And prices have declined substantially. It doesn’t seem to be boding very well for the season.”

On Sept. 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $7-7.50 for 50-pound cartons of russet norkotahs 40-100s from Idaho, down from $18-22 last year at the same time.

But Gary Linkletter, co-owner of Linkletter Farms Ltd., Summerside, was more optimistic that recessionary pressure would be lighter in 2009-2010.

“I don’t see any reason why demand wouldn’t be reasonable this year,” he said.

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