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Too much, too long: Canada’s Manitoba potato growers reach breaking point

Some potato growers in Manitoba have reached a breaking point and not just because of COVID-19. Manitoba’s potato industry has been suffering for more than 18 months. There was a difficult harvest in 2018, a much worse harvest in 2019, potatoes rotting in storage this winter and production cuts this spring. Robert Arnason reports for The Western Producer.

The personal stress has been building and a number of producers are questioning why they continue to grow potatoes.

“We went into this winter with a shaky foundation of some bad experiences with harvest and difficult storing (conditions),” said Stan Wiebe, a potato grower who farms by MacGregor, Man.

“And now there’s going to be another percentage that won’t get sold … because of the marketing conditions. This is affecting farmers not only financially but psychologically, after so many hard-hitting events, back to back. There’s a very real possibility that this might be a tipping point for some people.”

Potato acres in Manitoba and across North America will drop this spring because of shuttered restaurants, a sharp decline in french fry consumption and the economic fallout from COVID-19. Kids, teens and adults are still eating french fries, but the pandemic restrictions have dramatically cut into consumption.

“It doesn’t take a great scientist to figure it out. Once the sit-down portions of restaurants closed … then all you have left is drive-thrus to (sell) french fries,” said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada.

The issue, though, is bigger than restaurant closures. Millions of North Americans are out of work and it will take months, or years, before economic activity returns to normal. Companies that manufacture french fries, hash browns and other frozen potato products have scaled back their production contracts for 2020.

In Manitoba, the cutback is about 15 to 17 percent.

Last fall, Manitoba growers were unable to harvest 22 percent of process potatoes because of incessant rains, a 25 to 50 centimetre snowfall in early October and frost.

Collectively, potato farm revenues in Manitoba dropped by more than $50 million.

“Roughly $220 to $230 million (from) the field value (of processing potatoes in Manitoba),” Wiebe said. “Take 22 percent off of that. That’s money that will not be re-invested into the industry. It’s gone.”

Finding a solution for Manitoba potato growers is not simple. 

Read Robert Arnason’s full and extensive report in The Western Producer here

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Lukie Pieterse, Editor and Publisher

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