Canadian demand for the healthy tuber has sky rocketed, reaching heights that far outstrip Ontario’s small, locally grown supply.
Researchers at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre are working hard to change that by developing new sweet potato varieties specifically suited for Ontario’s climate and crop conditions.
About 1,500 acres are currently being grown in southern Ontario – mostly in the Simcoe area of Norfolk County – and most farmers are using a variety called Covington, which was developed in North Carolina.
“Sweet potato is a southern crop. We have a short season here, so we need quick-maturing and cold tolerant varieties for Ontario,” explains Valerio Primomo, who is leading Vineland’s sweet potato breeding work. “Sweet potatoes are a growing trend; it is full of beta carotene, a good source of the vitamins B6 and C, fibre, potassium, iron and magnesium.”
Ontario’s existing sweet potato crop is almost exclusively sold as fresh product to large grocery chains like Loblaws and Sobeys, but processing also presents a significant market opportunity.
In the last five years, Canadians’ sweet potato consumption has doubled to 1.5 kg per person per year, which Primomo attributes largely to the popularity of sweet potato fries and the inclusion of sweet potatoes in everything from baby food and soups to pet food.
To meet that demand, Canada imports approximately $42 million of the anti-oxidant rich tuber from the United States every year.
That’s why Primomo is also looking for varieties that have good processing characteristics, such as increased dry matter to make sweet potato fries firmer for processing, and reduced sugar content, which ensures the potatoes keep the orange colour consumers are used to seeing instead of turning brown when they are fried.
The work at Vineland’s research farm started in 2012 with 500 potential candidate plants, which was then narrowed to 100 selections.
These were evaluated for shape, size, yield, and sugar and dry matter content; the 15 best performers were subsequently moved forward to on-farm trials in 2014.
Three farmers in Norfolk County and one in Nova Scotia are taking part in the preliminary variety trials this year.
From those, the best three or four will be selected for larger scale farm trials before one or two varieties will be chosen for commercial production.
“One or two will be the end result, perhaps one variety for the fresh market and one for processing, but that is yet to be determined,” says Primomo, adding that he expects the winning varieties to become available to Ontario farmers in about three years.
“We’ve had a lot of interest from growers so far, and we’re also looking at other areas in Canada, like British Columbia for example, where the growing conditions are similar to Simcoe. There is also interest in Quebec, but their climate is cooler than ours in southern Ontario,” he says.
Sweet potato processors like Pride Pak and french fry maker McCain’s are also awaiting the outcome of Primomo’s work to allow them to supply products made from Canadian-sourced sweet potatoes to their customers.
Vineland’s sweet potato breeding program is supported by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through its AgriInnovation Program (AIP) and by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ New Directions Research Program. AIP is part of Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.