Potato wart situation was 'mismanaged,' says South Rustico farmer

A potato farmer on P.E.I.'s North Shore is wondering how the situation with potato wart got to the point where the U.S. border is closed to fresh potatoes from the Island.

'It should have been handled completely different,' says Klaas Nieuwhof

Potatoes being processed
Klaas Nieuwhof doesn't understand how he could be packing potatoes and told without warning the border was closed. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

A potato farmer on P.E.I.'s North Shore is wondering how the situation with potato wart got to the point where the U.S. border is closed to fresh potatoes from the Island.

Klaas Nieuwhof told CBC's Island Morning he was packing potatoes when he got a phone call and learned the border was closing.

"There's a lot of things that led up to that long beforehand that none of us were ever made aware of," he said. "Somewhere along the way the wheels came off the wagon."

The border closure shuts down a market estimated to be worth $120 million, and puts farmers in the position of having to destroy hundreds of millions of pounds of potatoes that can't be sold.

Nieuwhof is all too familiar with the position P.E.I. potato farmers are in. He remembers running potatoes through the snowblower in 2000, following the first discovery of potato wart on the Island, and the closure of the U.S. border then.

20 years without potato wart

Potato wart is not a threat to human health, but it is a serious agricultural pest.

Following that first discovery a management plan — including quarantining fields, washing potatoes so as not to export infected soil, and spraying sprout inhibitor on table potatoes — was put in place in consultation with the Americans.

That plan kept the border open for 20 years, until Nov. 22, when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended trade to prevent action on the American side that would be more difficult to reverse.

Nieuwhof's children remember the stress of the last time the border was closed. Because of it, he said, they were reluctant to take up farming, though one son eventually did.

"[It's] really disheartening for me as a dad to see your kids having to go through stuff like that, but also as a producer to see all my fellow producers struggling," he said.

"And having to go through this issue again, which we feel has been mismanaged. It should have been handled completely different."

The South Rustico farmer said it doesn't make sense to him that the crisis seems to have come on so quickly.

Back to the snowblower

On Monday, the federal government announced a $28-million package to assist with the crisis.

It will help divert potatoes to food banks, help locate new markets for potatoes and provide support to farmers who have to destroy part of their crop.

This photo from 2001 shows potatoes going through the snowblower so that they will be exposed to cold and not be a source of infection for any disease in the coming year. (Mary Kay Sonier/PEI Potato Board)

Nieuwhof has about 16 million pounds of potatoes that were destined for the U.S. He believes the opportunities to get those into food banks or into other international markets are limited.

"It's a noble idea, but Island farmers and dealers, we're constantly looking for new markets. So if they believe they can look for markets elsewhere kudos to them, but it's going to be very difficult," he said.

"We will be forced to put potatoes through the snowblower again like we did back in 2000. It will help offset the cost of that."

The only real solution, he said, is to get the border open again.

CBC News has contacted the federal government for comment on its handling of the potato wart situation. The story will be updated once a response has been received.

Support from beef plant

Atlantic Beef Products, based in Albany, P.E.I., is making a major donation to food banks in Montreal and Toronto in support of Island potato farmers.

The meat processing plant purchased 12,000 five-pound bags of potatoes to ship to the central Canada food banks.

"We're all very concerned about the lack of the lack of movement on getting the U.S. market opened up to these great P.E.I. potatoes that we produce," said company president Russ Mallard.

"We hope that this will draw even more attention to P.E.I. potatoes in Montreal and in the Toronto area."

Mallard expects the potatoes will arrive just in time to be added to Christmas boxes being packed up for those in need.

With files from Island Morning