Potato growers throw the dice

by Kevin Yarr, CBCNews.ca

There is this image of the potato farmer as the staid, conservative type, not interested in taking chances, taking life as it comes.

Twelve years of living on P.E.I. has shattered that image. Potato prices are like oil prices on uppers. Soaring before suddenly crashing, sometimes weeks before harvest. I spoke recently with a farmer who was getting five cents a pound at the farm gate in December, and 20 cents a pound in early June.

The risks are big, and farmers need to pay attention to them. Selling at the right time can mean the difference between a big profit and a big loss. And keep in mind potatoes are perishable. You can't hold them forever.

Not all farmers like that risk, and for them there is growing potatoes for french fry makers such as Cavendish Farms and McCain. These farmers grow under contract, with prices set before the crop goes into the ground and sales guaranteed, so long as the quality is there.

Prices can crash weeks before harvest (CBC)

But not this year. Soaring prices for grains have farmers planting corn as if they are preparing for tortilla heaven, and since there is only so much farmed land potato acres are down across the continent.

The expectation of reduced supply already has potato prices up, and P.E.I. farmers believe they can hold. They've rejected three separate contract offers from Cavendish Farms.

There's still time — a contract could be signed up to Aug. 15 — but Cavendish Farms has said it believes its last offer is fair. There is no word of further negotiations yet, and the potato growers could find themselves selling on the open market for the first time in years.

And maybe, this year, making some good money doing it.