PEI

As U.S. promises to reopen border to P.E.I. potatoes, farmers still have questions about wart crisis

The waiting continues for P.E.I. potato growers eager to know when they will be allowed to ship potatoes into the continental United States again.

'Bibeau is only coming here this weekend to try to pat herself on the back,' says one farmer

W.P. Griffin has lost staff because its farm has not been able to offer steady work due to the potato wart crisis. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The waiting continues for P.E.I. potato growers eager to know when they will be allowed to ship potatoes into the continental United States again.

American officials announced Thursday shipments could resume "soon" to the mainland United States, and now P.E.I. growers say they expect it will take another 10 days or so for the U.S. to outline its export conditions.

Exports of Island spuds were cut off to the U.S., and eventually the rest of Canada, after potato wart was discovered in two Island fields. The federal government halted exports, fearing U.S. sanctions would be harder to remove than Canadian ones. 

Some farmers like Colton Griffin of W.P. Griffin in western P.E.I. are still angry the potato wart crisis happened in the first place. 

Griffin spent many days in February destroying much of his company's bumper crop of high-quality potatoes —18 million pounds — that would have been headed for sales in the U.S.

"They're all good potatoes. There's no reason for them to be destroyed other than our own minister destroying our market," Griffin said. 

'10 business days,' Americans say

Griffin said it will be a challenge for him and other growers to ship to the U.S. in the next couple of months due to a lack of available trucks. 

He worries the Americans may add onerous requirements that Island farmers won't be able to meet. He said he calls his MP every few days seeking news. 

Elmsdale Potato grower Colton Griffin says he blames the Canadian government for causing the potato wart crisis with the U.S., which cost Island farmers millions of dollars. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"We really don't know what this means yet," he said, noting farmers have seen nothing in writing yet. "We'll see in a week or two when the U.S. issues their new federal order with the new regulations." 

In a statement to CBC News, a spokesperson wrote: "[The U.S. Animal Plant Health Inspection Service] determines mitigation efforts for P.E.I. potato imports into our country. All mitigation efforts will be included in an upcoming federal order to be published by APHIS.

"The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] will implement these decisions in the coming days with publication of a federal order outlining the required mitigations for table stock potatoes. We expect this to take about 10 business days."

'Pat herself on the back'

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie Claude Bibeau plans to visit Island growers Saturday. Griffin isn't planning to meet her but when asked what he would say to her, he said it wouldn't be fit to print. 

Griffin spent many days in February destroying much of his company's bumper crop of high-quality potatoes — 18 million pounds — that would have been headed for sales in the U.S. (Submitted by Colton Griffin )

"Bibeau is only coming here this weekend to try to pat herself on the back for a problem that, from what I can tell, she caused in the first place," he said. 

Now, however, farmers are focused on the upcoming season, set to begin in mere weeks. 

W.P. Griffin will plant a full crop, he said, because it can't afford to do anything else, including change to planting different crops.

"We've been investing to grow potatoes, and to pivot now to growing grain or something would basically mean, you know I'd have to sell off equipment, I'd have to shut down my packing plant," he said.

"It's not something I can pivot to grain for one or two years and then pivot back to potatoes when the market's good again ... It took us 75 years to get to where we are today. I can't just, you know, take a break for a year."

Promise too 'vague,' say Conservatives

The federal Conservatives issued a news release Friday saying the U.S. and Canadian promises Thursday were too vague.

"After months of miscalculations and Liberals pushing false hopes, hardworking P.E.I. farmers once again received a vague promise of a solution," the release said, urging Bibeau to secure a date for exports to resume. 

"Without a formal agreement between Canada and the U.S. on the future of P.E.I.'s potato industry there is no guarantee to avoid a similar crisis in the future."

He worries the potato wart crisis could easily be repeated

"How can we make sure this doesn't happen again next fall? How can we make sure we have markets for the crop that we're about to grow?" he said. 

W.P. Griffin will plant a full crop, he said, because it can't afford to do anything else, including change to planting different crops. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Growers are also very concerned for the Island's seed potato industry — seed shipments are still not allowed into the U.S. or the rest of Canada.

Griffin said that is going to hurt the entire industry.

"From what I can tell, all my seed is going to have to come from away because people aren't going to make that investment on the Island to grow these varieties just for the market of selling seed on P.E.I.," he said. "Our industry is in dire need of help now."

Griffin said he has lost staff because the farm has not been able to offer steady work due to the crisis. 

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