Potato Field

Agricultural Sustainability

Onion Crops

A significant amount of water is required to produce a healthy onion crop, and at McCain we believe new and improved techniques are essential to managing this increasingly sensitive resource. However, furrow or flood irrigation remains common in the industry.

Flood Irrigation

image irrigation

An onion crop produced under flood irrigation will use upwards of 40” of water per year and as this photo shows, this water is not always equally dispersed across the field. Additionally, flood irrigation can cause nitrogen leaching which robs the plants of a necessary nutrient and adds stress which can make them more susceptible to pest and disease pressures.

Over the past several years, the McCain US Agriculture team has been promoting drip or micro-irrigation with our growers. With soil moisture monitoring, drip irrigation is a very efficient resource tool.

Drip Irrigation

image Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation allows for improved, targeted, water application where runoff, leaching and wetting of non-targeted areas is avoided or completely eliminated. Annual water use on farms using this technology has decreased by approximately 25%, from 40” to less than 30” per year. Additional benefits include the virtual elimination of nitrogen leaching which has seen the nitrogen used reduced by over 50%, which produces a healthier crop stand better able to tolerate insect and disease pressures reducing chemical applications, and improved crop yield and quality for the grower.

Drip irrigation does have significant upfront cost thus industry adoption of this technology has been slow. However, since 2005 use by our grower has increased impressively from a base of 10% to almost 25% which is an increase of approximately 125%. Considering our storage onion crop, this represents a water savings vs. the use of 100% flood irrigation of approximately 57.8 million gallons annually.

Each year McCain Foods USA moves a significant volume of raw onions between key US growing regions and our processing plants in the Mid-west. Over the past few years, a range of cumulative activities have significantly reduced the “equivalent” road miles necessary to transport this raw material. Examples of these activities include: working with our transportation companies to increase payload through the use of lightweight equipment, conversion from pallets to slip sheets and the expansion of supply from the Pacific Northwest vs. historical supply in California. In crop year 2008, through activities such as those mentioned above, McCain Foods USA was able to eliminate over 255,000 transport miles.

Irrigation & Water Management

To optimize water use, low pressure pivot irrigation and/or moisture monitoring equipment is promoted. Additionally, the use of a Dammer-Dyker to place reservoirs in the furors is suggested to lessen water runoff and improve each plant's access to moisture, nutrients, temperature, and oxygen.

Potato Crops

The potato is the world’s number one non-grain food commodity, with production reaching a record 325 million tonnes in 2007. This very important food crop requires significant inputs to ensure its health and yield. At McCain, our geographically decentralized approach to potato production provides many advantages including the lack of irrigation needs in geographical areas were annual precipitation provides the water necessary to produce a healthy crop, or a decrease in overall pesticide use because of the lack of a specific pest’s prevalence in a particular growing area. Our Agricultural team works with growers in each of our growing regions to optimize the crops production sustainability.

Commercialization of new potato varieties with proven benefits is another way McCain is working to improve overall sustainability. A few examples of positive steps forward include:

  • Bannock Russet: this variety has a higher tolerance to drought stress than the industry standard Russet Burbank and can produce an equivalent yield per acre using 30% less nitrogen. In Wisconsin, Bannock is still in early stages of commercialization but will increase in use from 3% of our crop in 2008 to 4% of our crop in 2009. Considering the ’09 volume, this could represent a reduction in total nitrogen use of 63,000 lbs.

  • Umatilla Russet: this variety has a higher tolerance to drought stress and can be harvested slightly ahead of Russet Burbank. As such, its water and fertilizer needs can be slightly reduced as well. Over the past few years we have expanded the use of this variety. In Washington for example, Umatilla comprised 20% of our crop in 2008 and will comprise 30% of our crop in 2009. With the benefits mentioned above, we believe it could lessen overall water and nitrogen use by 5%. This would equal an overall water reduction of 140 million gallons and nitrogen reduction of 78,000 lbs.

  • Innovator: in some of our growing regions this variety has shown potential to improve grower yield upwards of 20% using equal or less inputs than Russet Burbank.

McCain USA actively participates in the McCain Global New Variety Development work-stream and remains committed to new variety expansion. Our current strategy will see the percentage of total raw material supplied by new or non-standard varieties increase from 12.5% in crop ’08 to approximately 23% in crop ’11.

Extension work with our grower community of total crop management and good agricultural practices is another area in which the US Agricultural team invests heavily. Focus areas include:

  • Proper crop rotation: key to any agriculture sustainability program, we promote, at minimum, a three-year rotation with our growers. Including crops that do not support a potato pest’s lifecycle, like Alfalfa or Clover, in the rotation will lessen the need for chemical pest control in future potato crops. Additionally, such rotational crops can provide natural nitrogen to the soil lessening the application of chemical fertilizers and increasing much needed organic matter for soil building. A healthy soil will retain water and nutrients more efficiently, ensuring they are available for the plant as needed.

  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM): over the past 30 years use of IPM practices has become standard practice within the potato industry and we continue to promote this important management tool with our growers.

  • Another area of focus is promotion of new pesticide chemistries that are: pest target specific, require less active ingredient per acre, have increased efficacy and reduced human and/or non-target risk.

Storage Management

Growing and harvesting a healthy crop is very important, but ensuring quality is maintained during storage is an essential component of any grower’s overall crop management program as well. The US Agricultural team partners with our growers to develop season and grower specific management plans to maximize quality and minimize storage shrink. Over the past two years, ventilation systems in six Maine company-owned storage facilities have been fitted with variable frequency drives (VFDs). This not only optimizes air flow for less shrink, but also lessens the energy consumption necessary to store the crop. We estimate that through the use of VFDs, company electricity use has been decreased by approximately 375,000 Kilowatts annually.

Non-standard Nutrient Sources

In Maine, more than 18% of our grower base use wood ash to meet some of their land application needs. Managed properly, wood ash can be a more sustainable and cost effective alternative to lime and potash. In Idaho, McCain is involved in a cooperative study with the Idaho Potato Commission and the University of Idaho relating to the use of manure as a nutrient source on potato land during non-potato years. We will continue to monitor these and other nutrient sourcing alternatives and promote as appropriate.

Looking beyond crop management, other focus areas can assist in lessening our overall environmental footprint. Consider that delivering potatoes to our facilities requires upwards of 60,000 trucks annually. Working with our transport partners in Burley, as an example, conversion to lightweight equipment enabled payload increases and the elimination of an equivalent 91,000 transport miles. Continued work with our transport and grower partners, as well as ongoing review of each facilities supply radius are other examples of strategies the McCain Foods USA Agricultural team will incorporate in our Agricultural Sustainability program.