Farmer to farmer: P.E.I. potato growers try new tack in export crisis

The United Potato Growers of Canada have opened a new front in the efforts to get the U.S. border open to fresh P.E.I. potatoes.

‘We thought it would be easier to talk grower to grower’

The export of fresh potatoes to P.E.I. was halted three weeks ago. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The United Potato Growers of Canada have opened a new front in the efforts to get the U.S. border open to fresh P.E.I. potatoes.

The border was closed three weeks ago by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in response to American concerns about the discovery of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields in October.

The group has opened up talks with the United Potato Growers of America and the National Potato Council in its efforts to get the trade suspension lifted.

"We thought it would be easier to talk grower to grower, group to group," said Kevin MacIsaac, executive director of the United Potato Growers of Canada.

It may be easier to get farmers to understand the issues involved, said MacIsaac, rather than relying on the ongoing talks between CFIA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

"We thought it might be faster. We could get to some of the details that are behind the situation here," he said.

20 years of successful management

Potato wart first appeared on P.E.I. in 2000, and prompted a border closure at that time as well.

A management plan was developed in consultation with the Americans, and it kept the border open until last month. Canadian officials insist the management plan, which includes washing potentially infected soil from fresh potatoes and spraying them with sprout inhibitor so they can't grow, makes exports safe for American agriculture.

Farmers would like to start by exporting potatoes to Puerto Rico, says Kevin MacIsaac. (CBC)

Potato wart disfigures potatoes but is not a threat to human health. It is considered a serious agricultural pest.

The P.E.I. Potato Board was expecting to export about $120 million worth of potatoes to the U.S. this season.

The farmer-to-farmer talks are focused initially on opening exports to Puerto Rico, which does not have a commercial potato growing industry. Puerto Rico represents about a quarter of the American market for P.E.I.

"If we were to prove that that could be done that would also prove then that it's not a trade issue," said MacIsaac.

"It's just something that has to be dealt with in terms of the details of getting potatoes there. It would be a good step in the process."

MacIsaac said the potato industry has already lost millions of dollars it will not be able to recover because of the trade suspension.

Meetings in Washington

Meanwhile, a delegation of high-level officials, including P.E.I. Premier Dennis King and P.E.I. Potato Board general manager Greg Donald left for Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

The two-day trip will include meetings with senators, members of Congress, the National Potato Council and Kirsten Hillman, Canadian ambassador to the United States.

King told CBC News Wednesday that he feels there's been "a little bit of headway," though there's still no resolution.

He said the delegation is stressing the importance of following the science and outlining the process that's followed on P.E.I.

He's hopeful some potatoes may start moving into Puerto Rico again, which is one step closer to a full resolution.

With files from Nancy Russell


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