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Peter Black

Local Journalism Initiative reporter

I have a penchant for the potato, a soft spot for the spud. Maybe that comes from having Irish ancestors who, according to legend, may have fled the potato famine of the 1840s – or at least heard firsthand accounts of it.

Maybe it’s because, for reasons that now baffle me, I took a job as a kid on some farm far from town harvesting pig potatoes, as my mother called the wee tubers. I lasted two days and the only lasting memory is the yummy farmhouse lunch.

So when I read a headline saying Quebec “patates sont en péril,” my spuddy senses tingle. Who or what is attacking Quebec potatoes?

We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, some fun facts about Quebec potatoes. It should come as no surprise that in the birthplace of poutine, dotted with countless “cabanes à patates” along secondary highways, the “apple of the earth” (pomme de terre) is not just a culinary staple but a cultural icon.

Quebec actually ranks fifth among the provinces in total potato production, with about 12 per cent of the national crop. Prince Edward Island, true to legend, is still the leader at 22 per cent, with Manitoba not far behind. Premier François Legault, who likes to measure Quebec’s success against Ontario, would be pleased to know Quebec’s potato production outweighs its cousin to the west’s by 300,000 metric tonnes.

About 80 per cent of the potatoes on the market in Quebec are grown in the province. Over the past few years, Quebecers have chowed down on some 1.2 billion pounds of patates annually.

On the 43,000 acres devoted to cultivating the spud, the most popular varieties are Goldrush, Chieftain, Envol and Mystère. There’s also a smattering of other potato exotica, from Actrice to Kennebec to Vivaldi. There are 235 producers and 22 processors, churning out everything from fries to chips.

So, back to the potato peril. No, it’s not the wart infestation that rocked PEI’s industry two years ago – seed potato exports from the island are still frozen – for which farmers are still awaiting compensation from the feds.

No, what imperils Quebec potato producers, and other field crop growers for that matter, is the question of access to water, as the province brings in measures aimed at reducing the environmental impact of agricultural operations on the water courses of the province.

The specific case that made headlines a few weeks back was a group of some 30 potato farmers near Joliette, in the Lanaudière region, Quebec’s second-largest potato hotspot (behind the Quebec City region, where Île d’Orléans is a fertile spud zone).

The Joliette farmers say they will be wiped out within two years if they are forced to comply with new environmental regulations affecting the use of water – and, you know, a potato is 80 per cent H20 or H2O. or H2O?

One of the farmers, Francis Desrochers, who happens to head the Quebec potato producers’ federation, told reporters a few weeks ago, “We feed people. We use water well. We have changed our technologies.”

The new regulations, introduced in 2022 are set to take effect in 2025. The ones that trouble potato farmers are the requirement of five-metre vegetated strips along watercourses, and three-metre strips along ditches. Another is the requirement for farms to treat waste water from washing fruits and vegetables.

Since that cri de coeur from the potato-farming community, the Quebec government responded with a four-year extension, to 2027, to allow farms to adapt to the new regulations. How well they respond may affect the overall picture for field crop production requiring the use of large quantities of water.

Concerns about the impact of agriculture on the environment in Quebec have been around for decades. The new regulations replace those introduced back in 1986 when protecting the environment was not quite as urgent an issue as it is today.

There’s a lot of pressure on agricultural producers in the province, leading to the progressive loss of farmland to development – more than 9,000 hectares in recent years, according to the Union des producteurs agricoles.

How many of our precious potato farmers, overwhelmed by the burden of compliance with environmental regulations, will opt to sell?

Food for thought as we chow down on our poutine and barbecued potato wedges.

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