A year later, P.E.I. potato growers still feeling impacts of U.S. border closure
Seed growers are still not able to sell off-Island, producers have lost U.S. customers
It has been one year since the U.S. border was closed to P.E.I. potatoes, and potato growers say they are still feeling the impact.
Now, they worry a blanket ban on P.E.I. potatoes could happen again.
The official announcement came on Nov. 21, 2021, after potato wart was detected in two P.E.I. fields.
Canadian Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau described the suspension as a pre-emptive measure, because the Americans were threatening to ban P.E.I. potatoes if Canada didn't take immediate action. She said that order would be challenging to overturn.
The border reopened to P.E.I. table potatoes on April 1, but seed potatoes are still prohibited from leaving Prince Edward Island.
The P.E.I. Potato Board said the U.S. border closure cost the industry $50 million in lost sales, and 300-million pounds of unsold potatoes were put through snow blowers, or fed to cattle.
'It was devastating'
Andrew Smith of Smith Farms in Newton, P.E.I., is the fifth generation of his family in the potato industry.
A big part of the farm's business before the border closure was providing potatoes for making potato chips.
"It was devastating for us. We were heavily reliant on the U.S. market, 25 per cent of our business was direct to the U.S.," Smith said.
"We had a contract with a major company down there, contracts that we were legally obligated to fill, and we couldn't do that last year. So that put us in a really bad position."
Smith said that customer is now gone, one of the casualties of the border closure.
"That customer has since left us, for obvious reasons. I mean there was a risk to supply, there's no guarantee that this situation wasn't going to happen again, and they couldn't take that risk," Smith said.
"They didn't tell us what they did with their business, but I expect they probably contracted that volume of potatoes south of the border and they don't have to deal with the consequences of border issues."
Pretty tough one to swallow when it's something that's beyond your control.— Andrew Smith, Smith Farms
Smith said losing that American customer left him feeling ''helpless."
"We had a great relationship for 12 years with that customer, and we had been growing the business for 12 years," Smith said.
"Grew it last year, we had contracted more than the year before, and for that to go from that to zero? Pretty tough one to swallow when it's something that's beyond your control."
CFIA's handling of potato wart file questioned
Smith said the last year has been a struggle financially, including having to destroy more than six-million pounds of potatoes because of the U.S. border closure.
"That was pretty heart-breaking. When you put your year's work into growing food, and then it gets destroyed," Smith said.
"Just not a very satisfying feeling, that's for sure."
Smith said he would like to see some changes in the way the potato wart file is handled by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
"I think there has to be an overhaul ... [at] CFIA. I'm not talking about boots on the ground people here on P.E.I., but I don't think the upper level understands the situation," Smith said.
"I think we need to look at other places in the world that are dealing with this problem, and how it's working for them, and why can't it work here."
Smith said he's hoping to someday be able to sell more potatoes south of the border.
"In the future, I would love to try and get some more American business. We've got to make sure the border is going to stay open, and then we can go chase that again."
Still not over
At Skye View Farms in Elmwood, P.E.I., Alex Docherty has warehouses full of seed potatoes harvested this fall, with nowhere to sell them other than on Prince Edward Island.
Those potatoes are still not allowed to leave the province.
Docherty said the last year has been challenging.
"You couldn't measure the impact, in my opinion. There's millions and millions of dollars lost, and good food went to waste, and it's not over, that's the problem," Docherty said.
"We're just concerned that it won't open because the powers that be in Ottawa didn't give the U.S. any pushback last year. So that's why I think it's going to happen again."
While at least half of P.E.I. potato producers grow some seed along with potatoes for the fresh market and processing, Docherty only grows seed potatoes.
"In our case, it's pretty frustrating because I have my customers now are calling from off-Island wondering can we buy your seed, and I have no idea," Docherty said.
"There's a million pounds that should be going to Ontario. I actually have the buyer from Ontario coming here next Thursday to look at them, and I still can't sell them. That's frustrating."
There's a million pounds that should be going to Ontario.... That's frustrating.— Alex Docherty, Skye View Farms
Docherty said he planted fewer potatoes this year, but still went ahead, despite not knowing what markets there would be.
"Back in the spring, people were saying, don't plant. Well, what was I going to do? I don't grow pumpkins. I don't grow turnips," Docherty said.
"Because where would I be, if the powers that be say 'Yep, you're good to go' and the warehouse is empty right? It's just what we do, and it's all a risk and a gamble, but it's what we do."
Docherty said one of the lowest moments for him was watching his son destroying the potatoes they had grown together.
"It's something you don't forget. I just hope I don't see it again in my lifetime," Docherty said.
"It was a disgrace to have it happen. There's people should wear bags over their heads for letting it happen."
John Visser had only been chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board for a few days when the federal agriculture minister called to say the agency was suspending the export of Island potatoes to the United States.
Visser described the last year as "a rollercoaster ride" — with long term impacts still being felt.
"There's a lot of people that want our seed, and those markets are gone for the foreseeable future," Visser said.
"Our fathers, and sometimes grandfathers, worked hard to develop those markets, and with the stroke of a pen they were gone."
"It's going to take hard work, and good communications to get those markets back," Visser said.
"Some of them won't come back, because if somebody else fills your need, and you're reasonably happy with that, you're not going to take a chance on a place where the government may step in again."
Visser said there have been other impacts on the industry on the Island.
"I've not heard of any farmers that were bankrupt. I know there's a couple of farmers that went out of business, or quit farming this year," Visser said.
"Was it directly related to the wart? Probably not, but it would definitely have been a factor. Just one more nail in the coffin. You can only take so many nails."
Just one more nail in the coffin. You can only take so many nails.— John Visser, Chair, P.E.I. Potato Board
Visser said he worries something like the border closure could happen again.
"If people don't want to communicate well, and certain other dynamics, political pressure is put on by parties from outside, forces that we have no control over, anything's possible," Visser said.
"Hopefully people will understand that we do have a good plan in place, and our food is safe, and our seed is also safe."