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Royal Winter Fair picks P.E.I. potatoes

Profiles of winners Charles Murphy and Alex Docherty


March 4, 2008
By Kathy Birt

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Growing and marketing a potato crop in Prince Edward Island can be a challenge but it hasn’t deterred a couple of potato farmers from forging ahead and coming out with an array of ribbons at the 2007 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.

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Alex Docherty holds his ribbons by a sample of his seed stock, currently in storage. The Elmwood-area potato producer’s son Logan was responsible for choosing the seed stock samples that were entered in the competition.
Photo by Kathy Birt

Growing and marketing a potato crop in Prince Edward Island can be a challenge but it hasn’t deterred a couple of potato farmers from forging ahead and coming out with an array of ribbons at the 2007 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.

Charles Murphy of China Point, P.E.I., was harvesting his 40th potato crop last October when his sons Randy and Francis – both partners in the family farm – suggested he enter seed stock in the Royal, held annually in Toronto, Ont.

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That suggestion resulted in the Murphy farm winning Grand Champion for its Goldrush variety, as well as first in the Superior, Dark Red Norlands, first in the Russet Burbank, and second in the Yukon Gold cate-gories. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me I was Grand Champion,” said Charles.

He, his wife Wilhelmena, and their two sons share the responsibilities of the family’s 300-acre potato farm and beef operation. They market their seed potatoes throughout Eastern Canada but mainly in P.E.I., maintaining several regular buyers over the years.

“We also sell some to provincially run seed stock farms and a few federal research stations,” said Charles, adding the beef operation helps to complement the potato production through the use of manure on the potato cropland.

Each year, the Murphys buy 25,000 plantlets from the Elite Seed Farm in Fox Island, located near the community of
Alberton, and Wilhelmena – whom Charles describes as a “natural” – looks after the tender plantlets in the screenhouse.

“My wife knows exactly when to water and fertilize,” said Charles.

The Murphys do not buy seed from anywhere else and keep their seed isolated from other farms in order to protect from disease. This same kind of care and concern was part of the selection of potatoes that went on to the Royal.

The Murphys selected specific tubers to be part of their fair entry and the choices were obviously good ones. “P.E.I. had a good crop this year in all varieties,” said Charles. “Our potatoes are really true to type.”

Alex Docherty of Elmwood, near New Haven, P.E.I., was also a potato winner at the 2007 Royal.

The P.E.I. seed potato grower said he started with 150 tubers and gradually narrowed them down to about 40 that looked identical. Then it was Logan’s turn, Docherty’s 14-year-old son who is also involved in the potato business. The young teen spent 25 painstaking hours selecting and narrowing the Dochertys’ entry down to the final 20 tubers. He proved himself as a novice entry taking third in the long Russet, Russet Burbank, Frontier and Frontier, Ranger classes.

“The last 20 is the real job…just to get them all identical,” says Alex, adding that Logan weighed every potato individually.

Docherty grows 300 acres on his Skyview Farm. The farm came out a winner at the Royal with a Reserve Champion rosette in the seed potato division. They also took first in Sebago, Kennebec or other white variety and first in the Yukon Gold, Norwis or other yellow flesh potato variety, a first with Norland, Sangre or other red skinned variety, and a second with Russet Norkotah.

The New Haven seed potato operation also showed strong in the table stock divisions.

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Charles Murphy holds the trophy and ribbons his seed potatoes won at the 2007 Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. His sons Randy and Francis – both partners in the family farm – suggested he enter the family farm’s seed stock in the Royal.
Photo by Kathy Birt

Docherty was full of praise for his farm’s Yukon Gold seed stock. “It is phenomenal,” he said.

“People look for the Yukon Gold label with pink eyes. Sometimes you will see other yellows with a yellow eyes, but they are not true yellows,” he says.

Docherty grows nine different varieties and markets 80 per cent of his seed crop to P.E.I. growers with the balance sold in Ontario.

He has been competing for about 10 years at the Royal. He has travelled to the fair in past years but he did not attend the 2007 event.

“I had my entries shipped up,” he said, adding winning is not about the money and ribbons. “There is that sense of pride that comes with growing a good crop of potatoes.”

The 40-something potato grower is the fifth generation of potato farmer living on the family farm. His son Logan will be the sixth generation. An older son went into the trades. “One of the hardest things I had to do was tell him to go and get a trade,” said Docherty.

With a good growing year, the yield for the 2007 crop is high and Docherty says the strong U.S. dollar is presenting problems with potato prices. “If the growers are not making money, they can’t afford to pay me what I need for my seed,” he said. “They know I can’t grow high class seed for nine cents a pound and they can’t afford to pay me 14 cents because they may only be getting six cents themselves.”

He continues to encourage Logan to stay with farming, but admits the next five years “will tell the tale for our farm.

“It takes a certain breed (of person) to grow potatoes,” he explained. “We have to be willing to put the time in and a lot of effort. If the guys I’m selling to are not successful, then I’m not successful.”


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