Ontario grower goes commercial with organic potatoes

Isaiah Swidersky says resistant varieties are one organic defence against late blight, but these varieties aren’t always the ones in highest consumer demand. Photo: Supplied

Isaiah Swidersky offers a careful answer when asked if organic potato production is a risk worth taking.

“To some degree it is, but there’s a reason I haven’t expanded it to 200 or 300 acres,” Swidersky says. “It’s a challenge to grow organic potatoes. But I’m optimistic. It’s a good challenge.”

Swidersky’s operation, Rose Mountain Farm, is one of the largest organic farms in the Alliston, Ont. area at 250 acres, with 50 of those devoted to organic potatoes. He also grows organic spelt, corn and mixed grain (barley-oats-peas) sold as hog feed.

When Swidersky started his operation in 2003, his first target market for organic spuds was the gourmet and restaurant segment, but he found the market a “hard sell” with constant, seasonal demand for new potato varieties.

Ontario imports quite a few organic potatoes from Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, so there is an opportunity in our province to grow more locally. – Isaiah Swidersky

These days he sells primarily to the table market, with most of his produce going to wholesaler packers who distribute to grocery stores. Out of his surplus, he also supplies some local farm markets — but Swidersky says potato demand for the latter is increasing.

“I like to support the local economy, and the margins are a bit higher there as well,” he says.

Wholesalers advise Swidersky on the varieties they want to sell, but because he is not obligated to sell to them, he takes on some risk that quality will be up to his customers’ standards. “Ultimately I’m on the hook for it,” he says.

Yield penalty

There are other risks to growing organic potatoes. Swidersky says that though prices are higher, yields are lower, and his organic spuds are at least as expensive to grow as conventional potatoes.

Average yields in the area for conventional chipping potatoes are 280 to 300 hundredweight per acre. By contrast, his organic table and chipping potatoes weigh in at the 150 to 180 hundredweight mark, although Swidersky says in a year with no late blight and ideal conditions, organics go as high as 240 hundredweight on his operation.

“In terms of inputs, it would cost us almost the same input dollars per acre to grow a field of organic potatoes as conventional potatoes, because the seed can be more money, the fertility inputs are more money, and weed control costs more,” he says. “I think the potential is there to make more money on organics — on paper they look great, but in reality it’s a tough one.

“We’ve had a lot of disappointments along the way to slow down our growth, but Ontario imports quite a few organic potatoes from Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, so there is an opportunity in our province to grow more locally.”

Disease and pest control

Pest and disease control is the biggest challenge facing organic potato producers.

Much of this is due to the lack of products registered for use on organics. Swidersky says organic approvals for products are sometimes removed due to formulation changes, further limiting the choices.

Potato growers traditionally rely on a suite of integrated pest management solutions, including clean seed, tillage and other mechanical weed control methods, regular scouting, managing irrigation and keeping plants as healthy as possible.

Swidersky says the biggest disease threat at Rose Mountain Farm is late blight. His strategy is simple. He uses tolerant varieties and plants as early as possible to encourage a more developed crop by the time the disease pressure kicks up in late July.

But there’s sometimes a disconnect between resistant varieties and market demand.

“Some varieties have better tolerance to foliage infection; some have better protection for the tubers,” says Swidersky. “The problem is if the potatoes don’t look like what the supermarket wants, it can be a challenge to sell them.”

Colorado potato beetle (CPB) is occasionally an issue, as is potato leafhopper — the latter has been a major problem in the past — and tarnished plant bug.

Swidersky says he never plants more than 25 acres of potatoes in a single field, and different fields tend to see different issues. He has hired crews to manually pick CPB, but he also has the option of spraying Entrust, Dow’s organic liquid formulation — although he rarely has to use it.

“I’ve had that pouch of Entrust in my shed for a few years,” he says. “It’s there as a backup, and we try to keep the plants as healthy as possible and we time planting and harvest and turn to other management techniques before we have to go and spray.”

Once potatoes are in storage, disease management again becomes an issue. Organic potato producers can’t use Phostrol, which is used by conventional producers as post-harvest protection against late blight and pink rot in storage. Swidersky has fogged StorOx into the organic potatoes’ ventilation system to control bacteria and fungi, “but you can’t perform miracles,” he says — particularly if late blight or rot-infested potatoes get into storage.

Additional control can be achieved by keeping the organic table potatoes at a low temperature — four degrees Celsius is the target.

As long as producers are willing to rise to the challenge, most problems in organic production can be overcome, says Swidersky.

But as demand increases, the organic potato segment could benefit from greater diversity of pest control products — and variety research — to help producers meet their targets.

“My hope for the future is that there will be more disease-tolerant varieties available to us that are desirable to the market,” Swidersky says. “A late-blight tolerant potato with good market acceptance would be a game changer.”

Julienne Isaacs is a contributor to Country Guide. Her article originally appeared in the February 1, 2018 issue.