New fertilizer application method showing promise in North Bedeque

Colin MacLean
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Scott Howatt of the P.E.I. Potato Board holds two sets of potato vines grown using two different fertilizer application programs.

NORTH BEDEQUE — In a North Bedeque potato field on Thursday, Scott Howatt of the P.E.I. Potato Board was asked to hold up two sets of russet burbank potato vines.

The handfuls were from two sides of the same field he and about 30 others were standing in.

One sample was grown using traditional fertilizing methods while the other used a new method called 4R.

As Howatt did as he was asked, it was clear that one bushel of vines was noticeably longer than the other. Howatt was then shown the potatoes that came from both sets of plants and was asked, from a buyer's perspective, which batch he'd rather buy.

Both were good quality, he said, but he'd choose the potatoes from the shorter vines because they were more uniform in shape and size.

The more desirable potatoes from the shorter vines were grown using 4R.

It was an effective, if generalized, demonstration for the man spearheading the 4R research program on P.E.I., Steve Watts of Genesis Crop System.

"P.E.I., like most other areas, has traditions attached to the way things are done in farmers' fields," said Watts.

"We're not saying tradition is right or wrong, it is what it is, but what we're doing though is trying to identify subtle changes that we can make in the grower's field that will have positive impacts on the environment . . . and that will have a positive impact on the grower's profitability situation."

The 4R method stands for "right source, right rate, right time and right place," and essentially involves farmers applying fertilizer to their fields when it will be of the most benefit to their plants.

Traditional methods are more generalized and tend to dump large quantities of fertilizers in one or two applications.

The end result is supposed to grow a more desirable potato while cutting down on costly fertilizer waste. Reducing that excess means less nitrogen seeping into drinking water and waterways.

Excess nitrogen in rivers can cause blooms of aquatic plants like sea lettuce, which suck oxygen out of the water when they start t decay, creating dead zones.

High nitrogen levels in drinking water can have adverse effects on human health.

Watts' company was contracted two years ago to conduct a three-year 4R trial study on P.E.I. The program is a partnership between the Canadian Fertilizer Institute, the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, Potato Board and the Kensington North Watershed Association.

In general, potatoes from all the test fields, five last year and 13 this year, have shown marked improvement in their quality come harvest time, said Watts.

That's good news for farmers like Shawn Birch of Birch Farms Ltd. It was his potato field Thursday's tour group was traipsing around. He said they are always looking for better ways to improve their efficiency.

Watts has liked what he's seen so far. But he does still have concerns. Namely, he said, that pretty much every field on the Island is different and would thus need different levels of fertilizer in varying timeframes.

"It's two different worlds, paper and reality. I mean by rights we should have a trial in every one of our fields, because every field is different," he said

Watts agreed that there are still challenges to be overcome, but in general this method of fertilizing the potato crop, used where practical, can help farmers and the environment.

"Tradition got us to where we are with how we grow crops here on P.E.I. . . . is there ways to do things better? I think there probably is, but you have to be prepared to look at this differently. You have to be willing to take it out to farmers fields', put it into practice," he said.

"Ideally, it's got to be better for the environment, it's got to be better for the grower and it's got to be better for the person that buys the potatoes."

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Recent comments

  • Organic Farmers
    September 23, 2014 - 08:42

    "How is it"/"Country res" if only you knew! It is a know fact that our local organic growers spray their crops as often or more than our non-organic farms. Have you not followed the news on the levels of chemicals that have be found in organic produce?

  • country res
    September 21, 2014 - 21:49

    Here's a suggestion for the potato board: Why don't you try growing potatoes in PEI without using any chemical pesticides or fertilizers? I'd be curious to see how they turn out. Heck, I might even buy some of them. I gave up on your filthy product 2 decades ago and have convinced my extended family of over 20 to stop buying your product. If you go organic, you might get some business back.... And some positive word of mouth. I turned some friends in New England off your potatoes last year when they were informed by me about your chemical addiction too. And I'll keep doing this until you stop the chemicals.

    • Really?
      September 22, 2014 - 15:28

      Ignorance is bliss, I guess. Do you think organic farmers don't spray? Do really think that any of the other processed crap you buy in the grocery store has any less chemicals in it? Please be informed about what you go on about so you don't look so ridiculous saying it.

    • How It Is
      September 23, 2014 - 07:07

      To Really, You are the one who is misinformed and now you are trying to misinform others. Have you ever talked to an organic farmer about this claim your making? Can you name any of those chemicals that you speak of? Natural remedies are not the same as synthetic chemicals. You don't see organic farmers wearing protective clothing from head to toe on the rare occasion that they have to use them. They cause no harm to soil, air, water, fish, or people. There's a huge difference and you are trying to distort that for your own good, not for the good of others or for the good of the earth. Selfish.

    • Patrick
      September 23, 2014 - 20:22

      @how it is How do you know what chemicals organic farms use? just because its natural doesn't make it safe! Rattlesnake venom is natural, so is a bee sting, and poison ivy is natural. So natural doesn't make it safe.