P.E.I. farmers reliving nightmare of destroying potatoes in 2001

With $2 million a week in unsold potatoes, P.E.I. farmers will soon have to make a difficult decision. With not enough time to get those potatoes off the Island, they will have to be destroyed, as they were in 2001, after the first discovery of potato wart.

In 2001, farmers across P.E.I. destroyed more than 300 million pounds of potatoes

The potatoes were brought by dump truck to the field before being put through the snow blower. (Mary Kay Sonier/PEI Potato Board)

P.E.I. farmers are reliving the past as they face the difficult decision of having to find a way to get rid of potatoes currently blocked from the U.S. market.

Growers say there is not enough time to pack and truck the millions of pounds that have been left unsold because of the export ban.

In 2001, the U.S. border was also closed because of the first discovery of potato wart, and Island farmers had to destroy more than 300 million pounds of potatoes.

The potatoes are chopped up 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)

Many Islanders know Kevin MacIsaac from his role as general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada, but in 2001, he was also a potato farmer, on the family farm in Bear River, P.E.I. 

"It's kind of an emotional decision when I think back to it because of all the things you do growing potatoes, the thing you don't expect is that you're going to have to take them out and destroy them," MacIsaac said.

"I thought once would be enough in a lifetime for that. But it's here again."

'A heartbreaking day'

MacIsaac said he started destroying the crop in February 2001, starting with a bin of Yukon Golds, because he knew they would not last as long in storage.

"It was pretty much a heartbreaking day when we started and we kind of hesitated because we thought perhaps there's a chance the border will open, which didn't happen," MacIsaac said.

"Every day, we would have a discussion at the end of the day, same as you have discussion after harvest.  The discussion in 2001, was how many loads did we haul out in the dump truck today, and how many loads went through the snow blower. So pretty devastating."

Kevin MacIsaac has vivid memories of destroying three bins of potatoes in 2001, at Lily Pond Farms in Bear River, P.E.I. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

MacIsaac went on to destroy two more bins of potatoes, covering a 25 acre field, careful not to make the layer too thick, so they are able to decompose.

"The whole concept was to try to destroy the crop so that those potatoes would not be a source of infection for any disease in the coming year. And the best way to do that is to expose them to the cold temperatures," MacIsaac said.

"Chop them up small, so that all parts of the potato get exposed, freeze, damage the cells, and they won't grow. Because you don't want any volunteers the coming year." (Volunteers are potatoes that are not planted which are a potential source of disease).

At the corner store or the parts counter, people really supported you. It was on everybody's mind.​​​—Kevin MacIsaac

MacIsaac was emotional as he recalled what those months in 2001 were like, and the ripple effect through Island communities. 

"We thought of all the people in the industry that were going through it, the people that we had hired to work to grade the potatoes, they went home," MacIsaac said.

"People that agreed to sell us equipment in the spring, they had orders cancelled. All of the industry was greatly affected. We had really good support from the community. Unbelievable. At the corner store or the parts counter, people really supported you. It was on everybody's mind." 

MacIsaac said there was a lot of snow that year so they had to blow out a track on the field before bringing in the dump trucks. (Mary Kay Sonier/PEI Potato Board)

Immense volume

MacIsaac said he understands why people are upset about the potatoes being destroyed, instead of being donated to food banks.

He said some potatoes will go to those in need, as they did in 2001, but there just isn't the infrastructure to donate them all.

I couldn't watch after that first day. It's an image I have never really forgotten​​​.—Lori Robinson, Eric C. Robinson Inc.

"You just can't deal with the amount of volume that comes out of tractor trailer loads of potatoes out of a bin, to go to a food bank. They're not really set up to deal with it, in terms of packaging and loading docks and so on," MacIsaac said.

"Great idea, just can't work on that volume. This is an immense volume of potatoes that has to be destroyed here." 

These potatoes being harvested at Kevin MacIsaac's family farm in Bear River in the fall of 2000 were some of the ones that were later destroyed after potato wart closed the U.S. border. (Submitted by Kevin MacIsaac )

Vivid memories

The discussion about destroying potatoes is also bringing back memories for Lori Robinson, farm manager at Eric C. Robinson Inc., a sixth generation farming operation in Albany.

"I remember watching the first few truck loads of potatoes being dumped in windrows in the field and then sending our snow blower through them," Robinson said.

"I couldn't watch after that first day. It's an image I have never really forgotten."

Lori Robinson remembers watching the first few truck loads of potatoes being dumped in the field and then sending the snowblower through them. She says she couldn’t watch after that first day. (Submitted by Lori Robinson)

Robinson said she doesn't have any photos or videos of the potatoes being destroyed, but anticipates there will be many this time around.

"I said to one of my farm crew the other day that once farmers start destroying excess potatoes in the new year, social media will be flooded with pictures and videos," Robinson said. 

"It will be very impactful, especially in these times of food insecurity, rising food prices, high demands at local food banks, environmental considerations, climate change."

'Heartbreaking' decision

Jason Webster, of MWM Farms in Kinkora, is also facing the prospect of destroying millions of pounds of potatoes. 

His family also went through the experience in 2001. 

Jason Webster of MWM Farms in Kinkora is also facing the prospect destroying millions of pounds of potatoes. (Nancy Russell/CBC )

"It was a very, very tough experience for everyone. It was just hard to accept the fact that perfectly good food is going through our snowblower into our field and going to be frozen, wasted," Webster said.

"When we know there's people hungry, that need it and we know there's a market that demands it. It's just heartbreaking for everyone."

Webster says it's hard to explain to his children why they would have to destroy perfectly good potatoes as they are doing in this photo from 2001. (CBC )

Webster said the potato wart situation also has some of his family and friends talking about whether they want their children to consider a future in farming.

"When you hit three years of drought and then hit a real good year, and then all of a sudden things get turned into turmoil like this. Do we really want to ask our children to bear this burden?" Webster said.

My younger children look at me and don't understand, and I don't blame them.— Jason Webster, MWM Farms

"Those discussions are happening. My friends are having them with their children as well. I've had multiple people tell me that they're starting to discourage their children from taking over the farm because it's just too hard."

Webster said it's also hard to explain to his children why they may have to destroy some of this year's crop.

"My younger children look at me and don't understand, and I don't blame them because they shouldn't understand. It shouldn't happen, destroying perfectly good food when there's people hungry and need it," Webster said. 

"It's not the right thing to be doing, and our federal government and the governments over the border need to open their eyes and change this."


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.