Already too late for some U.S. potato exports, says P.E.I. Potato Board

Even if the U.S. allowed the opening of the border to P.E.I. potatoes today, some of the lost sales from the current closure will not be recoverable, the P.E.I. Potato Board said Friday.

‘We won’t be able to make that back up’

P.E.I. typically would be shipping 160 truckloads of potatoes a week to the U.S. this time of year. (Tom Steepe/CBC)

Even if the U.S. allowed the opening of the border to P.E.I. potatoes today, some of the lost sales from the current closure would not be recoverable, the P.E.I. Potato Board said Friday.

The logistics of getting the potatoes moved would just be too difficult, said general manager Gred Donald.

"Some of the time that we've missed, we won't be able to make that back up," said Donald.

On Nov. 20, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended U.S. trade in fresh P.E.I. potatoes 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.

Representatives of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture met Friday to discuss the trade suspension.

Cardigan MP Lawrence MacAulay described that meeting as "critical" to solving the trade dispute.

"What we need to find out is just exactly what do they want and to make sure we can meet those requirements," he said.

"We have signed the stoppage deal and we can also rescind that. But what we want to do is to make sure that the potatoes are moving when we do that."

Politics involved

Potato wart is caused by a fungus. It is harmless to humans, but is a serious agricultural pest.

In a typical year, P.E.I. ships about 160 transport trucks full of potatoes to the U.S. every week.

But this isn't a typical year. The harvest was excellent on the Island, and not so good in the States. The P.E.I. Potato Board was expecting to ship significantly more potatoes to the U.S. than usual.

Conservatively speaking, more than 300 truckloads of potatoes have already been prevented from crossing the border. Trying to make that up while keeping up with what would already have been a busy year is the challenge the industry faces when the border reopens.

"There's potatoes that are safe to eat, they're needed in the North American market because of shortages," said John Visser, chair of the Potato Board.

"They have to go somewhere in the market or to the fields to get destroyed, and that seems like an absolute waste."

MacAulay said that politics are "without a doubt" a part of the dispute, and that political pressure in turn will be necessary for the Americans to consider lifting the ban or granting an exemption for Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory is an important market for P.E.I. potatoes.

"With this move, it puts the price of potatoes up in the U.S. and down in Canada, and of course sometimes that can suit politicians in certain areas, and that's a fight that we have to take on," he said.

"It's so important, again, that the Puerto Ricans, the people that receive the potatoes and other receivers in the U.S., make sure that the political element understand that yes, we need the potatoes, there is a shortage of potatoes. If they can present this to the U.S. government, that would be a big help to us."

Meeting in Ottawa

On Thursday, the provincial and federal agriculture ministers, the Island's four MPs and industry representatives met with CFIA officials to discuss ways to solve the impasse.

Donald, who was present, said it was important to meet with the people actually negotiating with U.S. officials because the trade suspension is costing the industry millions of dollars a week.

"We were able to express the sense of urgency every day that this goes on. It's costing a lot of money and certainly causing a lot of anxiety and stress," said Donald.

Greg Donald says he felt more optimistic following a meeting in Ottawa Thursday. (P.E.I. Potato Board)

Donald said it is particularly frustrating that 11 days into the suspension, there is still no indication from the U.S. on what needs to happen for the border to be reopened.

"It's well along, and it's not clear exactly what it is we need to do," said Donald.

P.E.I.'s legislative committee on natural resources and environmental sustainability also met to address the ongoing crisis on Thursday.

The membership, which is made up of MLAs from all parties, passed a motion to have the CFIA present before them as soon as possible.

Darlene Compton, P.E.I.'s finance minister, introduced the motion in committee to ask the CFIA to present on Thursday. She says it's important the agency answers for the decision to end exports in a public forum. (Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

"The more pressure that is put on them by all different aspects, including this legislative committee, it's very important," said provincial Finance Minister Darlene Compton, who presented the motion.

Compton noted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has openly stated in the House of Commons that the trade suspension was not based on science, but Bibeau has said the opposite.

"The fact that we've got a contradiction between the [agriculture minister] and the prime minister is a concern. And that's not political, that's just making a statement.... So, what is it? I think CFIA is the one to answer that."

The committee also plans to send letters to other bodies inviting them to present, including Bibeau, the potato board, provincial Minister of Agriculture Bloyce Thompson and his staff and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.

Potato wart has popped up sporadically in P.E.I. fields in the last two decades. It first appeared in 2000, and the U.S. border was closed at that time as well. A management plan was developed in consultation with American officials, and the border has remained open since.

Support from Islanders

P.E.I.'s potato farmers say they appreciate the ongoing show of support from Islanders during this crisis.

Restaurants, and even one music teacher, have been giving out bags of potatoes to customers. Northumberland Ferries has purchased 1,000 bags of potatoes to give to passengers. Many restaurants are also offering new potato dishes.

"To hear the, I'm going to say, overwhelming support, it's been really motivating. It gives a strong sense of we're in this together," said Donald.

Famous Peppers is offering a free bag of potatoes with every order of a spud Islanders, a pizza featuring potatoes. (P.E.I. Potato Board)

Donald was still in Ottawa on Friday for meetings with potato industry representatives from across the country.

The border closure is a problem for all Canadian potato farmers, he said, because it creates a surplus of potatoes in Canada that could lower prices.

With files from Island Morning, Wayne Thibodeau and Nicola MacLeod


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