New fertilizer application method showing promise in North Bedeque

Colin MacLean
Published on September 20, 2014

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

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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."