Rain or shine

Potato farm­ers learn to live with unco-op­er­a­tive weather

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY JIM DAY

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.’’

JIM DAY/THE GURDIAN

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.

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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.

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