'It's really tough': COVID-19 leaves Manitoba potato farmers with glut of spuds as demand plummets

After two years of harvest losses at the hands of Mother Nature, Manitoba potato farmers are now looking at another bleak year — this time due to COVID-19. 

Nearly one-third of Manitoba's 2019 harvest still in storage as processors cut back production

Pat Owen, a partner in River Trail Potato Co. near Carman, Man., said he still has millions of kilograms of potatoes in storage, with no place for them to go. (Submitted by Pat Owen)

After two years of harvest losses at the hands of Mother Nature, Manitoba potato farmers are now looking at another bleak year — this time because of COVID-19. 

Demand has dried up at processing plants across Canada and the United States due to the closure of restaurants and bars during the pandemic, which has left Manitoba producers sitting on hundreds of millions of kilograms of potatoes with no place to go, according to Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Portage la Prairie based Keystone Potato Producers Association.

"We do need some help in this situation," he said. "It's very difficult to handle any more losses at the grower level." 

Sawatzky said most of the potatoes grown in Manitoba end up being used for french fries or patties that are used in restaurants and fast-food industries. He said while retail sales have increased in recent months — they only account for about 15 per cent of the market in Manitoba.

Sawatzky said there are about 254 million kilograms of potatoes currently sitting in storage on Manitoba farms. Last year's total harvest, according to Statistics Canada, was just over one billion kilograms. 

"Everyone struggled and incurred extra costs with the wet harvest," he said. "Everyone is feeling this and now when we see the market drop off as it has... we are seeing the potential, the possibility that we will not be able to sell what we did salvage." 

Pat Owen, a partner in River Trail Potato Co. near Carman, Man., about 75 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, said he still has ten million kilograms of potatoes in storage, which suddenly have no place to go — double, he said, what he had at this time last year. 

"We're not sure they're going to go, but obviously we have high hopes they are going to go to market," he said. "If they don't, that's a huge hit." 

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Owen said there is simply no market for his potatoes right now. He said potatoes he has in non-refrigerated storage will keep until June and those that are refrigerated could keep until August.

"They're a perishable item, not like corn or wheat where you can store from year to year," he said. 

Owen said, unlike some producers, he was able to harvest most of his crop last year. He said, however, that he has already had his contracts with potato processors for this year's growing season cut by 15 per cent. 

Other regions affected

Kevin MacIsaac, president of the United Potato Growers of Canada, said the effects go far beyond Manitoba. 

"It's an issue that's not only in Manitoba, but its an issue right across Canada," he said. 

MacIsaac said many processors are still sitting on potatoes imported from the United States last fall after shortcomings in the Canadian market due to heavy fall rain and an early dump of snow in Manitoba — which is the second-largest potato growing province in the country. 

J.R. Simplot's plant in Portage la Prairie has an annual capacity of 135 million kilograms of frozen french fries and formed potato products. (CBC)

"The irony is that [processors] don't need all of what they thought they needed," MacIsaac told CBC News, adding facilities that produce potato chips haven't seen the same crash in demand. 

"People like eating potato chips as comfort food when there are times like these," he said. 

Only Prince Edward Island outpaces Manitoba for potato production. Producers there also left some potatoes in the ground last fall due to weather. 

"It's really tough. It's really stressful for growers," MacIsaac said. "They've had two years of very difficult harvests."

Processors scale back

McCain Foods, which has two potato processing facilities in Manitoba — at Carberry and Portage la Prairie — said it has laid off workers and scaled back production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"All McCain potato processing plants in Canada are impacted by temporary layoffs, to varying degrees," read a statement emailed to CBC News. "The specific numbers will fluctuate by site at any point in time according to customer demands, which are changing constantly in these uncertain times."

"The situation is being monitored daily to ensure that everything that can be done, to support McCain employees through this unprecedented but temporary challenge, is being done."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister at a Feb. 14, 2018, announcement in Portage la Prairie that J.R Simplot Company will be expanding its facility in the Manitoba city. (CBC)

The company also has potato processing facilities in Alberta and New Brunswick. It did not say how many people had been laid off in Manitoba or in Canada.

Simplot — which announced a $460 million expansion of its Portage la Prairie potato processing facility in 2018 — didn't respond to a request for information on its operations on Friday. 

Government help 

Sawatzky, Owen and MacIsaac all said they want governments to step up and offer more assistance for the industry.

The federal government previously announced measures to increase lending capacity, loan deferrals and funding for temporary foreign workers who have to quarantine. More aid is expected to be announced soon, a federal spokesperson told CBC News last week.

Premier Brian Pallister, meantime, said on Friday that he has discussed agriculture with deputy prime minister Chrystia Freeland and planned to address it with prime minister Justin Trudeau.

"This is a monumental issue for a province with a big piece of our pie chart of GDP … associated with ag," Pallister said. "Whether it's ag or related processing industries, this is an important industry for us."

Owen said despite a lot of unknowns, he still has to plant a crop this year — and soon.

"We have a lot on the line here right now," he added. "We have a lot at risk right now if these potatoes don't move." 


Riley Laychuk is CBC's reporter based in Brandon, covering rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback:


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