P.E.I. potato growers more optimistic for 2021 season

P.E.I. potato growers say they're optimistic for the 2021 season after the roller-coaster ride of 2020, which included the COVID-19 pandemic, and a hot, dry summer that cut into yields.

There are still questions around markets and seed supply in 2021

These seed potatoes are being graded in preparation for the 2021 planting season. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

P.E.I. potato growers say they're optimistic for the 2021 season, after the roller-coaster ride of 2020, which included the COVID-19 pandemic, and a hot, dry summer that cut into yields. 

"I think overall, when we look back, the potato industry fared fairly well," said Randy Visser, CEO of G Visser & Sons in Orwell Cove, P.E.I.

"There was quite a bit of volatility, and ups and downs as far as the supply chain went, especially in the retail part of the industry. The grocery stores were really trying to react to what the consumers were doing."

'Total chaos'

MacIsaac said March 23, 2020 was the date when french fry sales just ground to a halt because of people not being able to go out and sit down in restaurants (Fertilizer Canada)

"Potato growers today are a little better off than they were a year ago, because a year ago, we were in total chaos," said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada.

"After being through some of that in the past year, I think growers are more optimistic, and looking forward to some of the things that a new year will bring with planting potatoes," MacIsaac said. 

MacIsaac said 2020 had some unexpected results when it came to potato sales. (Alex MacIsaac/CBC)

MacIsaac said 2020 had some unexpected results when it came to potato sales.

"Some sectors of the industry, less affected. Fresh consumption was very, very good, actually went up to almost 44 per cent above year-previous levels, because people stayed at home. People cooked more potatoes and enjoyed doing that," MacIsaac said. 

"Chip sales went very, very well. And amazingly enough, they stayed up. They didn't drop down to a more traditional level, they're still very high."

Government support 

P.E.I. Potato Board chair Wayne Townshend said the P.E.I. government provided crucial support in those early days of the pandemic. 

The province offered $4.7 million to pay for shipping and storage of processed potatoes in order to have Cavendish Farms, the province's largest private employer, use up existing stocks from Island growers, with $1.3 million accessed from the program.

"I think that was an excellent program because if they hadn't, some of that stuff would have ended up being dumped, or buried, or shoved over on the fresh market," said Townshend, who grows seed and table potatoes with his three sons in Fortune Bridge, P.E.I.

"That was excellent, the way they did that."

Townshend said seed growers also received compensation through the Seed Potato Recovery Program, offered by the P.E.I. government in January 2021.

"It was around $1.2 million, and I think there were 38 producers got payments out of it," Townshend said.

"I think it was a really excellent program because seed producers are the foundation of our industry."

The P.E.I. government offered funding of $4.7 million to ensure 100 million pounds of surplus Island potatoes would be processed, with $1.3 million accessed from the program. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Townshend said, looking back at 2020, he's grateful to everyone in the industry who kept the potatoes moving to markets.

"I'm pretty proud of our industry here, the way we've coped with COVID," Townshend said.

"Especially our truckers and shippers and receivers, they're getting our product to the market, or to the consumer, in an orderly fashion. And farm workers still coming to work every day. We're real thankful for that." 

This truckload of potatoes from G Visser & Sons is headed to Puerto Rico. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Seed supply tight

MacIsaac said many people in the industry are watching the supply of seed potatoes for planting in 2021.

He said the hot, dry summer in the Maritimes cut into the seed produced in 2020.

"Supply is very tight, particularly in some varieties, probably sold out some time ago, for particular varieties," MacIsaac said.

"P.E.I. was hit quite heavily by the hot, dry growing conditions last summer, so the yields were off 14 per cent in P.E.I., off 25 per cent in New Brunswick. So definitely a lot less supply to actually put out into the marketplace."

The P.E.I. Potato Board said Island growers with contracts with Cavendish Farms had their contract volumes reduced by 8 per cent for the 2020 season, one of the impacts of the pandemic. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

MacIsaac said the resolution of a CFIA investigation into potato wart found on P.E.I. is good news, but said the temporary closure of the U.S. border to seed potatoes from P.E.I. did have an impact.

"The issue is that one of P.E.I.'s main markets for seed is earlier in the winter, generally end of January, early February, which is when Florida and some of the eastern seaboard states plant. So P.E.I. unfortunately missed that market opportunity," MacIsaac said.

"I'm not thoroughly disappointed, because there's still enough time now to feed the domestic market."

Seed potatoes being sorted at the G Visser & Sons facility in Flat River, P.E.I. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Markets opening up

Visser said he's optimistic that their operation will sell all of the 2020 crop, and said they plan to stick with the status quo for planting this season.

"If the vaccinations are done steadily and efficiently, we'd be looking forward to having the restaurants open up, particularly in bigger city centres like Toronto and Boston, New York, places that P.E.I. potatoes go to," Visser said.

"So we really want to look forward to that. Possibly by fall, we may see some more normal marketing conditions."

Visser said the hot dry weather in 2020 affected their yield, and their volume was down 10 to 20 per cent from where they were hoping to be. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

MacIsaac agrees the markets are rebounding, but it will take time.

"We're pretty comfortable in terms of where we're going back to, where we're almost at 100 per cent of french fry markets," MacIsaac said.

Visser said he's optimistic that their operation will sell all of the 2020 crop. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"Obviously the big thing is, as people get vaccinated, and we're allowed to travel and move around, we're expecting some good rebound," MacIsaac said.

"Will it happen all right away? Probably not. It's going to take some time."

More from CBC P.E.I.


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.

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