P.E.I. potato businesses face growing backlog of excess potatoes
'It makes me sick to my stomach to think about destroying potatoes'
With a bumper crop, no room in the Canadian market and the U.S. border closed for three weeks now, the unsold potatoes are piling up at W.P. Griffin Inc. in Elmsdale, P.E.I.
Over the last three weeks, co-owner Colton Griffin has had to reduce the number of shifts at the family's potato packing plant, and he's also starting to worry about what to do with all of the unsold potatoes.
"Pretty disheartened after we've come off two or three bad years due to the weather, and things that are just completely out of our control," Griffin said.
"To finally get such a such an amazing crop, all these beautiful potatoes in storage, and then have the border closed, and the market locally in Canada go all to hell. It's just a slap in the face."
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced it was suspending the fresh potato trade to the U.S. following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields. Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the agency moved to prevent similar action by the U.S., which would be more difficult to reverse.
Exports from P.E.I came to a sudden halt, trade usually worth about $120 million per year to the Island economy.
Workers sent home
Griffin sent home his crew of nine temporary foreign workers from Mexico soon after the U.S. border closed.
"They usually go home for Christmas anyway, but one group was supposed to return the 10th or 15th of January, we have them delayed now basically indefinitely," said Griffin.
"There isn't the market to sustain all the potatoes that P.E.I. wants to ship right now within Canada. There's just not enough people to eat them."
Griffin said his company is one of the lucky ones on P.E.I., with some Canadian orders, enough to keep them in production three days a week, compared to two shifts a day, five days a week in a normal year.
He said a provincial program for wage support announced last week will help. The wage subsidy program is worth $4.2 million, retroactive to Dec.1, and is capped at $3,000 per month per employee.
Excess potatoes piling up
Now, with three weeks worth of unsold potatoes building up in the company's warehouses, Griffin has to start thinking about what's next.
"I'd say at least two or three million pounds would be excess now. Every week this goes on, there's more potatoes pile up that there's just no time to pack," Griffin said.
They're going to have to be destroyed now, one way or another.—Colton Griffin, W.P. Griffin
"There's not enough trucks to physically carry them off the Island in the amount of time that's remaining in the year, that's just the reality.
"They're just excess, and they're going to have to be destroyed now, one way or another."
Griffin said he's too young to remember the big potato diversion program, connected to the first discovery of potato wart in 2000, but remembers how stressed his father was.
Now, he too is feeling that anxiety.
"I think about it every day, I'd say that's what most of the industry is hoping for," Griffin said.
"It's not a great thing to think about or talk about, it makes me sick to my stomach to think about destroying potatoes."
Griffin said timing will also factor into the decision.
"The only proper way to destroy them will be in January or February by spreading them on fields through snow blowers or manure spreaders, so that they freeze and rot."
The border closure is also impacting the workers at the potato packing operation, as the orders to the United States evaporated overnight.
Jennifer Rafferty has worked in quality control inspection at W.P. Griffin for a little over a year.
"It's a bit of a worry, to be honest, nobody seems to have any answers on how long this is going to last," Rafferty said. "Definitely, with Christmas, it's been pretty stressful."
Rafferty said she was relieved to hear about the provincial program to support workers.
"I think it's great. It definitely guarantees that we're going to have an income coming in, and we'll be able to get some things done around the warehouse that need to be done," Rafferty said.
The uncertainty of not knowing how long this is going to last is quite a worry for a lot of people.— Nicole Shaw, W.P. Griffin Inc.
Nicole Shaw has worked in shipping and receiving at W.P. Griffin for nine years.
"Normally this time of year would be my busiest time of year because we ship a lot of potatoes to the U.S., so normally we're flat out busy," Shaw said.
"It's disappointing. It's shocking. It's not what we expected, and the uncertainty of not knowing how long this is going to last is quite a worry for a lot of people."
Shaw said she is also worried about all the excess potatoes sitting in the company's warehouses.
"It's almost a sick feeling, knowing that probably thousands and thousands of pounds of those potatoes are going to be destroyed," Shaw said.
"They're already talking about that and just knowing that there's people starving in the world, and the thoughts of destroying all those potatoes. It just seems like such a nonsense waste to me."
Local communities impacted
The mayor of nearby O'Leary said he's also worried about the economic impact of the U.S. border closure, and hopes it can be resolved quickly.
"Very, very important because it's affecting the economy, not just in the town of O'Leary, all the surrounding areas, businesses everywhere," said mayor Eric Gavin.
"The longer that it takes, that this goes on, we're definitely going to feel it, for sure."