PEI

Uncertainty hangs over this year's potato technology expo on P.E.I. 

The U.S. border closure, high fuel and fertilizer costs are weighing on many at the potato technology expo in Charlottetown. Vendors are not sure what the impact will be on sales this season.

U.S. border closure, high fuel and fertilizer costs weighing on industry

The potato expo has been held every two years for the last two decades, and usually there would be sales made at the event. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

"Ominous" is the word that Trent Cousins uses to describe the mood in the potato industry these days on Prince Edward Island. 

He's co-owner of Allan Equipment Manufacturing in Covehead, P.E.I., and his company has big, expensive equipment on display at this year's International Potato Technology Expo in Charlottetown.

The event has been held every two years for the last two decades, and usually there would be sales made at the event.

This year, the uncertainty caused by the closure of the U.S. border last fall, and millions of dollars of lost sales that followed, are weighing on the minds of many. 

"There is a bit of an ominous feel in the industry," Cousins said. 

"Not only with the border closure, and all of the science and politics around that, but also the volatility in the world markets."

Cousins says his company had orders cancelled, or scaled back, last fall when the border closure was announced. (Kirk Pennell/CBC )

"Just ordering something that used to be simple, that was a week or two away, we've got to order components that are, some of them, 18 months away," Cousins said. 

"If we don't already have them, then we're not going to have them before this harvest."

Scaling back spending

Cousins said the company had orders cancelled, or scaled back, last fall when the U.S. border closure was announced. 

"The farmers looked like they were going to have a really good year, and were going to be able to reinvest, and there was definitely quite a shift when the border closed," Cousins said. 

"We're going to see a lot of people just fixing up what they have, and making it last another year. And we can't blame them, they've got to look after themselves."

Cousins says supply chain issues are making it challenging to get parts, and that is also causing uncertainty for the industry. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Cousins said this season is equally uncertain. 

"Short term, we're definitely going to feel it, our sales are definitely going to be down. I don't know how they couldn't be," Cousins said.

It's very, very disheartening.—Trent Cousins, Allan Equipment Manufacturing

"The damage for this year is done, and our concern is in the years to come, that the generation that was kind of just coming up, this was quite a kick in the teeth for them.

"What they thought was a certainty for however many years, that they could get a good return, and make a good living, all of a sudden it's very uncertain." 

Some of the equipment on display at the International Potato Technology Expo is already sold, but was loaned back for the two-day show. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Cousins said the company has tried to diversify to manufacture equipment for other crops, including blueberries, and, so far, has not had to lay off any staff.

Significant impact

The P.E.I. Bag Company, based in Central Bedeque is a regular exhibitor at the potato expo, and general manager Thane Smallwood said it has also been a challenging last four months for them.

"For our business, it's been a significant impact. Back when it started, most of the potatoes that would go across the U.S. border would be packed in poly bags that we would manufacture, and also in paper master bags and in totes," Smallwood said.

"Certainly the U.S. ban impacted us absolutely immediately, and continues to this day, until we see that first load of potatoes going across the U.S. border."

The P.E.I. Bag Company is a regular exhibitor at the potato expo, and general manager Thane Smallwood says it's been a challenging last four months for them. (Kirk Pennell/CBC )

Smallwood said that other business, in smaller paper bags, allowed them to keep staff busy. 

"That sort of picked up a little bit, offset some of the the other workforce issues. And at the end of the day, we're actually continuing to hire people over the last number of months," Smallwood said.

It's really difficult for a business that is a support to the potato industry to plan for the next six months, 12 months​​​​​.— Thane Smallwood, P.E.I. Bag Company

Smallwood said one of the biggest hurdles is the inability to plan for the season ahead.

"It's really difficult for a business that is a support to the potato industry to plan for the next six months, 12 months. And that's the challenge," Smallwood said.

"We're not sure where the market's going to be, and how many poly bags we need and how many master bags we need. It's really volatile, trying to plan for the next six to 12 months."

Many potatoes being shipped to the U.S. are packed in these bags manufactured by the P.E.I. Bag Company in Central Bedeque. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Smallwood said global supply chain issues are also hitting his company hard.

"We're struggling with logistics costs, whether it be local logistics costs, freight between here and Ontario, freight between here and the U.S., doubling, tripling," Smallwood said.

"All of the supplier costs — doesn't matter whether it's paper, glue, ink — all of those things are rising, and I'm hoping that that's going to settle out in the next six months as well."

Cousins says farmers are worried about what it is going to cost them to plant their crop this season, and may not have any money left over for new equipment. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Show manager Shawn Murphy said the number of exhibitors was down slightly, but that was mainly international businesses who couldn't make it because of travel rules related to the pandemic. 

Murphy said one of the biggest challenges was getting equipment to have on display at this year's expo.

"As soon as they get equipment, it's usually sold right away," Murphy said. "Some exhibitors had to go back to their their clients and say, 'Can we borrow the equipment we just sold to you?'"

Shawn Murphy, show manager of the International Potato Technology Expo, said they were expecting the same attendance as the last time it was held in February 2020. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Murphy said his company will be watching to see what happens in the industry on P.E.I., between now and when the show happens again, in two years time.

"Certainly with the great crop they had last year, we were hoping that they would have a great 2022," Murphy said. 

"There's certainly some challenges right now, but you know what? Every industry rebounds. They're going to work through the challenges that they have. And I think technology might be one of the solutions that will help them out."

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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