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Under shadow of COVID-19, Prince Edward Island potato growers face uncertain season

Kerry Campbell of the CBC reports that some of Canada’s Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) potato farmers have already begun planting this year’s crop, and others will start planting in the coming weeks. 

But even before most potatoes are in the ground, many producers are facing an uncertain future for their product, which could affect decisions they make around what to plant this spring, along with the money they’re able to make once potatoes have been harvested.

“It’s going to shake itself through so that everybody’s going to feel some hurt,” said Vernon Campbell, who farms near Kensington.

The closure of restaurant dining rooms across North America has taken a big bite out of demand for P.E.I.’s biggest export — frozen fries and other potato products.

Like many Island farmers, Campbell grows potatoes under contract with processor Cavendish Farms, the biggest private employer on P.E.I.

The company has already asked Campbell and its other suppliers to start selling what’s left of last year’s crop to other buyers if they can. Campbell is sitting on 12 million pounds of potatoes, about twice as much as he would usually have this time of year, and still expects to sell those to Cavendish Farms. 

But the timeline for delivery is now delayed and there’s a possibility Cavendish might still not take them all — something the company could be allowed to do under its contract because the circumstances leading to the drop in demand are beyond either parties’ control.

Meanwhile, Campbell and other growers have a new contract for the coming season, but won’t know until the end of April how many potatoes the company wants from them from this year’s harvest. They’ve been told to expect reductions in volume of up to 20 per cent.

Campbell said he’ll plant the excess acres in barley or alfalfa or something else “but of course potatoes have always been the cash generator.”

Potato receipts are worth a quarter-billion dollars a year to Island farmers, not to mention the hundreds of millions per year in the value of frozen potato exports from P.E.I.

Jason Haydon

Jason Hayden, chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board, said he expects an overall drop in potato acres planted this season, and a drop in revenues that could hit contract potato growers particularly hard.

“The really big unknown is our markets. Will restaurants be open and food service be back sort-of to normal or will that still be more-or-less closed down?” he said.

And then there are concerns that even if restaurants open back up, international supply chains could remain disrupted, jeopardizing the more than $300 million in frozen potato products P.E.I. ships internationally each year.

As they consider spring planting, farmers are also mulling over what to do if they end up with tens of millions of pounds of potatoes from their existing stocks that can’t be processed.

Read the full CBC report here

Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher of Potato News Today

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