PEI

'I just can't stand by': 2 P.E.I. women write letters lobbying politicians to resolve potato crisis

Two Island women have started their own letter writing campaign, urging federal politicians to find a solution to the potato crisis on P.E.I.

Both women have deep agricultural roots and want to help find a solution for P.E.I. farmers

Mary van den Broek Grant has been co-owner of Cardigan Feed Services for 40 years, and her father owned the business before that. (Submitted by Mary van den Broek Grant)

Two Island women are putting their concerns about the potato crisis in P.E.I. on paper, asking politicians to find a resolution and get the U.S. border reopened.

Mary van den Broek Grant has been co-owner of Cardigan Feed Services for 40 years, and her father owned the business before that. Theresa Redmond recently retired home to P.E.I. after years in Ottawa working for the federal government. She now lives on the family farm in Corraville. 

"I've been at this for 40 years and I've watched [Potato Virus Y], I've watched mad cow, I've watched the first potato wart crisis and I really feel that this one is worse than all of those things, like this one really, really hurts," van den Broek Grant said. 

"They had a crop that should have turned into millions of dollars, and all of a sudden the entire crop is valueless pretty well.

"I just can't stand by and watch the pain that they're going through. I hear it every day from them, and I just feel that I have to do something," van den Broek Grant said. 

Van den Broek Grant had been visiting farms earlier this month, talking to growers about their orders for next season and was struck by the silence at the potato packing warehouses. (Submitted by Mary van den Broek Grant)

Van den Broek Grant had been visiting farms earlier this month, talking to growers about their orders for next season.

"You walk into a packing warehouse and usually there's noise, and there's conveyors going, forklifts going, people working hard and you open the door to these packing houses now and it's dead silence," van den Broek Grant said.

"The silence is deafening. Those potatoes aren't moving. There's nothing happening, and it's extremely serious for our growers." 

I just can't stand by and watch the pain that they're going through— Mary van den Broek Grant, Cardigan Feed Services

Letter themes

Redmond said she comes at the issue as a former public servant, but also as an Islander who grew up on a farm.

"I have empathy for farmers having grown up on a farm. Many friends and family and neighbours are hit hard by this whole situation. And, also, I really feel that we don't have the full picture," Redmond said. 

"I couldn't sit by, and not try to at least help get an explanation of what's going on, and hopefully promote a solution in a small way." 

Theresa Redmond recently retired home to P.E.I. after years in Ottawa working for the federal government and now lives on the family farm in Corraville, P.E.I. (Submitted by Theresa Redmond)

Redmond said there are several themes to the letters they have written so far. 

"The first one is Islanders felt like they were treated badly by what felt like a fairly precipitous decision on shutting the border without consultation. That was the first thread of the letters," Redmond said. 

"The second one is many people have told me that they were deeply offended by the request that the delegation that went to Ottawa from P.E.I. should bring up the auto industry in Ontario. That felt like an affront to Islanders, and that was the substance of one of the letters."

Bags of Prince Edward Island potatoes are unloaded from a transport truck on Dec. 8, 2021 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

New cabinet committee

Their most recent letter focused on the announcement of a new federal cabinet committee to deal with the P.E.I. potato crisis, and asked the prime minister for the mandate letter for the committee and the individual cabinet ministers.

"We just asked to see it because that's a great way to understand what they've been asked to do, but it's also a great way to keep governments accountable," Redmond said. 



Redmond said she hopes the new cabinet committee will find out what's going on and what needs to be done to solve the situation.

"That may be incrementally at first, which is removing the ban for seed potatoes shipped across Canada. That's internal to Canada. We could do that tomorrow," Redmond said. 

I think it's up to this really-high-profile, experienced cabinet committee with the prime minister's ear​​​— Theresa Redmond, letter writer 

"It's up to this really-high-profile, experienced cabinet committee with the prime minister's ear."

They have also copied many Island MLAs on the letters, and have heard from some of them, but, so far, had no official response from federal officials.

Farmers appreciative

Van den Broek Grant said they have also been hearing from people in the community who are seeing the letters published in the local newspaper.

"It's a little nerve-racking to be doing this all the time, but all the farmers keep on saying we appreciate your efforts," van den Broek Grant said.

"We'll continue doing this until this issue is resolved, and we're going to work hard at it and just not stop until we get a resolution to this impasse."

This file picture from 2001 shows potatoes being chopped up by running them through a snowblower. This has to be done in winter so that they will be exposed to cold and not be a source of infection for any disease in the coming year. (Mary Kay Sonier/PEI Potato Board)

Van den Broek Grant said she worries about what happens if the border does not reopen soon.

"We are, at this moment in time, looking at putting half a billion pounds of perfectly good potatoes through snow blowers and across fields in P.E.I.," van den Broek Grant said.

"A half a billion pounds. That is an enormous amount of food."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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