Heavy reliance on potatoes puts agriculture in peril: prof

A researcher of rural economies warns that a lack of diversity in the industry is steering New Brunswick agriculture toward a crisis.

Susan Machum, the Canada research chair in social justice and a professor at St. Thomas University, said the reliance on potatoes in New Brunswick’s agricultural sector is a disaster waiting to happen.

Farmers have pressed toward crop specialization for years, in the interests of cost efficiency and economies of scale, Machum said. But those actions have built up to produce a grim 21st-century situation.

“It’s like you’re driving down the highway,” she said, “it’s been going fine, and then suddenly up ahead we’re seeing major crisis. There are big major potholes in the road and the road is washing away,” Machum said.

“It took us several decades to get here, and now it’s like ‘hmmm, this is not a good road to be on.’?”

Potatoes are the province’s largest agricultural commodity, spanning 200 farms and 50,000 acres. In the 2006 census, New Brunswick farmers reported working 375,590 acres of cropland.

Machum said when there is so much weight placed on a specific crop, a single disease can wipe out an entire growing season.

For example, the mad cow crisis on British cattle farms had catastrophic economic impacts on the industry. Even poor weather during the planting season can affect the entire year’s profit.

Joe Brennan agrees that having more variety spreads out dependence and lowers risk. He is the chairman of New Brunswick Potatoes, a producer-driven organization.

He said potato farming is a market-driven industry and there isn’t really a long-term plan to deal with a sudden drop in global demand or an unexpected shortage in supply.

“It’s not an ideal situation,” he said.

Most farmers educate themselves on the best way to protect their crops from agricultural diseases such as late blight, and a jointly-funded crop insurance program creates something of a buffer, but Brennan said there’s always risk.

If something were to come along and decimate the potato industry, said Brennan, it would hit the province hard. And it wouldn’t just affect potato growers, It would trickle through the economy, toppling various sectors like dominos.

Brennan added that more crop diversity is not only better for economic protection and stability, but it also means healthier soil.

Lots of people have decided to just ignore the problem and assume someone else will fix it, Machum said.

“We’re on this path. How do you get off? … ?We’re caught.”

She said that there is hope in an emerging younger generation committed to sustainable farming.

But once you’re on a certain trajectory, it can be very hard to stop it, she said.

Previously published June 20, 2011; Telegraph-Journal