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Vegetable crop production on the Canadian prairies began with home gardens: home-grown vegetables represented an important source of nutrition and variety in the pioneer diet; they were consumed fresh in the summer and preserved in root cellars or as pickles for the long prairie winter. Each wave of settlers introduced vegetables popular in their homelands. While potatoes, cabbage, peas, beets, carrots and beans thrived in the brief, drought-prone prairie summers, others like tomatoes and cucumbers were less well adapted. The search for better production methods and for vegetable crops and varieties suited to the prairie climate began with the settlers and continues today. The area devoted to vegetable crop production in Saskatchewan grew with the population: by 1910, the province had over 16,000 ha of potatoes. Until the 1940s, the vast majority of this production was for household use or local sale. However, the shift towards urbanization following World War II created a demand for vegetables amongst town dwellers who no longer had the yard space or time to tend a garden. This demand allowed some growers to expand their farms and to focus their production on the crops that provided the greatest returns in the city markets. Development of superior rail and later road networks allowed better access to more distant markets, but also brought locally grown produce into competition with imports from the rest of the continent. Today, over 90% of the vegetables consumed in Saskatchewan are grown on specialized vegetable farms and purchased through supermarket chains. Presently, less than 10% of the vegetables consumed in Saskatchewan are grown within the province; the adjacent provinces of Manitoba and Alberta provide 20% of Saskatchewan's vegetable needs, while imports from the southern United States, Mexico, and other warm regions represent the remainder. The value of the fresh vegetables annually imported into Saskatchewan exceeds $20 million. Over 50% of the vegetables consumed have been processed in some way (frozen, canned, pickled), but Saskatchewan has few commercial-scale processors.

In 2002, there were over 150 market gardens producing vegetables in Saskatchewan, and this number is slowly increasing. The market gardens, scattered throughout the province, are usually close enough to population centres to allow quick delivery of fresh product. The number of commercial-scale vegetable and table potato operations in Saskatchewan had declined to less than twenty by 2002, as local growers were unable to compete against imported produce. The commercial farms tend to be in the warmer areas of the province and are usually on irrigated land. The number of seed potato growers has expanded from just six in 1990 to more than thirty in 2002; although seed potatoes can be grown without irrigation, the majority are grown on land irrigated from Lake Diefenbaker. In 2002, the 2,600 ha of seed potatoes and 1,500 ha of table potatoes produced in Saskatchewan had a combined estimated farm gate value of $38 million. The estimated farm gate value of all other vegetable crops grown in the province, based on 277 ha of production, was $1.2 million in 2002. Potatoes have always been the most important vegetable crop grown in Saskatchewan: they represent an excellent source of energy, vitamins and protein, and are popular in the cuisine of many cultures; they are also relatively easy to grow, store well, and can be used in many forms. Today, local growers produce most of the potatoes consumed fresh in the province, but virtually all processed potato products (chips and fries) are imported. Today, seed potatoes represent the single most valuable vegetable crop in Saskatchewan. The warm days and cool nights characteristic of prairie summers give local seed potatoes excellent vigour and yield potential, while the cold winters and great distances between seed farms help keep the seed disease-free. Saskatchewan-grown seed potatoes are exported throughout Canada, the Pacific northwestern United States, and Mexico.

The development of earlier maturing super-sweet types of corn in the 1980 s increased demand to the point where today corn is the second most widely grown vegetable crop in Saskatchewan; the locally grown corn crop is destined for sale within days of harvest. Cabbage is still the third most popular vegetable crop in the province; however, the area planted to this crop has declined due to decreasing popularity with consumers and to increasing production costs; some of the cabbage crop is kept in cold storage for up to six months. Saskatchewan vegetable growers plant smaller quantities of over thirty other vegetable crops, with new crops introduced each year in response to changing market demand. Growers are always looking for new crops or varieties with higher yields, better or different flavour, and superior nutritional characteristics.

Doug Waterer

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Further Reading

Waterer, D., R. St. Pierre, K. Tanino, B. Bors, B. Vladicka, and L. Gilmore. 2002. “Horticulture in Canada: Spotlight on the Prairies,” Chronica Horticultura 42: 20-23.
This web site was produced with financial assistance
provided by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan.
University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
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Diversification de l'économie de l'Ouest Canada et le gouvernement de la Saskatchewan.