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COVID-19 puts the brakes on potato acres as McCain and Simplot scale down in Canada’s Manitoba province

Manitoba’s potato acres will take a hit this year in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and plummeting demand.

According to multiple industry sources, McCain Foods has dropped 16 per cent of acres from its contracts with Canada’s Manitoba farmers, while Simplot has also made smaller cuts from its agreements.

Why it matters: As demand shrinks, less processing potatoes will go into the ground this year, as well as sending up a cloud of uncertainty for seed potato growers, writes reporter Alexis Stockford in Manitoba Co-operator today.

Alexis writes that North America’s potato industries have taken a big hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown of restaurant dining rooms, bars and other food-service locations have sent demand for products like french fries or hash browns, and therefore, potato consumption among processors like McCain and Simplot, into a nose-dive.

Manitoba producers were expecting a boost in acres in 2020. Impacts of the pandemic come soon after major producer Simplot was expected to ramp up production. In 2018, the company announced a $460-million plant expansion at Portage la Prairie. Potato growers this year were expecting to queue up additional acres to feed the expanded plant.

Neither McCain Foods nor Simplot responded to requests for comment, Alexis says.

Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association, said that the downturn has hit producers already reeling from a hard harvest last year. The Keystone Potato Producers Association estimated that 12,000 acres of potatoes were left unharvested last year thanks to wet weather and early snow, while 1,000 acres were harvested with frost damage. The potato sector later reported storage losses due to potatoes harvested under poor conditions.

“Some producers are finished their deliveries — they may have had some issues where potatoes had to be moved early — while others are sitting on most of the crop still from last year,” Sawatzky said.

Some of those producers left with most of their 2019 crop are also those who struggled to bring crop in last fall, he added, although producers fighting storage issues may have been forced to move potatoes earlier.

Cuts to contracted acres have also left producers with an unexpected surplus of seed. Seed supplies were initially expected to be tight this year, following the last two years of challenging falls.

Some producers already had their seed potatoes delivered when cuts were announced, Sawatzky noted. “Those growers who had their seed home won’t be able to find a market for that seed, as well as the seed that was still sitting in the seed growers’ premises,” he said. “Of course, that seed won’t move anywhere either.”

Read Alexis Stockford’s extensive report in Manitoba Co-operator here

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Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher

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