Rain or shine
Potato farmers learn to live with unco-operative weather
Potato farmer Terry Curley is not shedding any tears over the lack of rain falling on his large spud fields.
The recent dry patch has not delivered any notable blow to production at Monaghan Farms, which is contracted to supply a whopping 50 million pounds or so of potatoes to Frito Lay each year.
“The potatoes look good,’’ says Curley.
“They don’t appear to be under stress from what we can tell.’’
Not yet, at least. Curley is quick to caution if the next three or four weeks are dry – too darn dry – the impact will be significant.
Still, he is not working up a sweat at the possibility of too much sun shining down on his 1,500 acres of potatoes that are grown on fields all within an eight-kilometre radius of one another.
The 55-year-old Curley, who has been farming for almost four decades, has farmed through his share of poor weather.
When it comes to Mother Nature, farmers learn to simply roll with the punches.
“What does worrying change? Nothing,’’ he notes.
“Definitely, human nature being as it is, there is some people more worked up than others. They’ve learned to deal with it one way or another – or they have a heart attack.’’
Curley observes that while weather seems to go in cycles on P.E.I., over the past 10 years farmers have had to endure greater extremes in the weather.
“You seem to have drier spells or it starts to rain and it rains for two weeks and then it gets dry for a month,’’ he says.
Precipitation in P.E.I., according to Environment Canada, was well above normal in May, while some areas of the province, like Summerside, have been far drier than average in July.
David Mol, president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, says farmers have their own ways to deal with the unpredictability of weather.
“As you get older, you either succumb to it or you learn to live with it,’’ says Mol, who owns and operates Meadowbrook Farms, growing wheat, barley, small grains and soy beans on close to 1,000 acres of farmland.
“The weather is one thing that puts acid in your stomach. It gives you indigestion.’’
In a perfect world, says P.E.I. Potato Board general manager Greg Donald, potatoes are nourished with about 25 mm of rain per week with plenty of sunshine sprinkled into the mix.
Not surprisingly, adds Donald, farmers check the forecast several times a day.
“It’s their livelihood and it’s a huge investment,’’ he says.
“They can do everything right, but unfortunately they cannot control the weather.’’
Farmers, Donald adds, are a very optimistic lot. They manage what they can.
“When it comes to the weather, they generally have to hope for the best,’’ he says.
“Generally, we’re fortunate on P.E.I. We have some of the best conditions in the world for producing crops.’’
Back on Monaghan Farms, Curley highlights the many non-weather factors he can control.
First, he has the comfort of having contracts with Frito Lay plants in Canada, the United States, South East Asia, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. So, the market for his potatoes and the prices are set, as is the case with most Island potato farmers.
Murnaghan Farms also ensures the quality of its product.
“We do a lot of management of the crops throughout the summer,’’ says Curley.
“We have sugar analysis that we measure the juice in the potatoes for sugar content.’’
The biggest challenge for potato farmers is not weather but controlling costs, notes Curley.
“Margins are tight for all growers today,’’ he says.
“It doesn’t matter what you are producing, it’s tight margins.’’
Mol says potato farmers have less opportunity to bounce back from a mistake – or simply misfortune – today than 20 years ago.
“It seems that cost and profit margins are tighter than they used to be,’’ he explains.
“It used to be in the potato industry there was an expression that if you had two bad years and a good one, you can survive…that is no longer the case. Every year has to be a positive year. It just costs too much to rebound.’’
Still, Curley sees a bright future – rain or shine – for the potato industry in Prince Edward Island.
He can envision the familyrun Murnaghan Farms becoming a seventh-gneration — and even eighth-generation — farm.
His early ancestor, Thomas Curley, one of a million Irish people who emigrated from Monaghan County in Ireland in the 1840s during the great potato famine, settled in Freetown, P.E.I., and established a mixed farm.
Today, Curley’s son, Derrick, is taking increasingly greater control of the operation while Derrick’s wife, Katelyn, works on food safety.
Monaghan Farms has flourished, picking up numerous awards and accolades over the years, including the 2007 P.E.I. Potato Board Award and Frito Lay Top Canadian Supplier.
Curley’s long-term non-weather forecast for the potato industry is that farms on P.E.I., which he calls one of the better places in Canada to grow spuds, will be fewer but larger.
“That’s the trend worldwide,’’ he says.
“It’s being forced on the growers.’’
Terry Curley and his son, Derrick, the fifth and sixth generation of Murnaghan Farms, stand in a 130-acre potato field in Norboro. The family-run operation farms roughly 1,500 acres of potatoes and another 2,500 acres of other crops including hay and winter rye.
Terry Curley of Murnaghan Farms holds up some chipping potatoes in one of his warehouses in Norboro, P.E.I. The family-run operation is contracted to supply 50 million pounds of spuds to Frito Lay each year.