A first-of-its-kind federal program aimed at redistributing surplus food during the COVID-19 pandemic is an initial step toward moving some of the thousands of tonnes of excess potatoes currently stuck in storage on southern Alberta farms, producers say. Amanda Stephenson reports for the Calgary Herald.
However, farmers warn the $50-million program will only go so far, meaning large quantities of good-quality potatoes could still end up being turned out onto fields and left to rot this summer.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the creation of a new surplus food purchase program to assist farmers who have lost their markets due to COVID-19 while helping communities and families in need to get food.
The program, part of a total $252-million government investment in agriculture announced by Trudeau on Tuesday, will help redistribute existing and unsold inventories of products such as potatoes and poultry, both of which have suffered a collapse in demand due to the pandemic.
In southern Alberta — the province’s potato-growing epicentre and home to major french fry and frozen potato processing facilities including McCain Foods, Cavendish Farms and Lamb Weston — the effects of COVID-19 and wide-scale restaurant closures have been severe. There are simply not enough people eating fries right now to absorb all the potatoes that are out there.
“We have seen a significant reduction in demand, which has translated into less operating days at our Lethbridge facility and an oversupply of potatoes from last year’s crop,” Cavendish Farms spokeswoman Mary Keith said in an email. “This has also had an impact on contracting less acres for next year than originally planned.”
Michel Camps, who farms in the Taber area and sits on the board of Potato Growers of Alberta, said in general, contracted acres for the industry are down 20 to 25 per cent for the new growing season, which will have a significant negative effect on producers’ revenue in the coming year.
Some of the surplus potatoes can be sold as livestock feed, though that doesn’t bring in much money for farmers. Potatoes that have been in storage over the winter are perishable and are at risk of spoiling as the weather warms up.
“It’s a pretty dire situation,” said Chris Perry, who grows potatoes on his Coaldale-area farm. “Feedlots can only handle so much, and not all of them are geared to take a feed like potatoes . . . so there will definitely be some dumping.”
While details of the federal government’s surplus food purchase program have not yet been announced, both Perry and Camps welcomed the news. But they said the problem is so widespread, it may not be enough to tide over farmers until the market recovers, or to prevent good-quality potatoes from being turned out onto fields and plowed under.
Photo: Roughly 200 million pounds of Canadian potatoes are stuck in storage, waiting to be processed into fries. GETTY IMAGES