PEI

P.E.I., Puerto Rico look for ways to keep potatoes heading south

The ban on the export of P.E.I. potatoes to the United States is putting a strain on the supply heading to Puerto Rico, raising concerns around prices for consumers and how long Island growers can hold on to their customers there.

Concerns being raised around supply and increased prices for consumers in Puerto Rico

In 2020, sales to Puerto Rico accounted for about 25 per cent of P.E.I.'s sales to the United States. These are P.E.I. potatoes in a warehouse in San Juan. (Joe Colon Studio)

The ban on the export of P.E.I. potatoes to the United States is putting a strain on the supply heading to Puerto Rico. 

It's been more than two weeks since the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced it was suspending fresh potato trade to the U.S. following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields.

The P.E.I. Potato Board says the Island ships $18-$20 million worth of potatoes to the U.S. territory in a normal production year. In 2020, sales to Puerto Rico accounted for about 25 per cent of the province's sales to the United States. 

One Island company has opted to purchase potatoes from New Brunswick to send south, rather than leaving its customers to find other suppliers. 

Tropical Shipping has a weekly sailing from the port of Halifax to Puerto Rico. This is the Canadian vessel arriving at the port of San Juan. (Submitted by Tropical Shipping)

"We felt that at least for the short term we wanted to do our best not to disrupt our customers, with the hope that in short order this would be rectified, and we could just maintain business as usual," said Randy Visser, president of G Visser & Sons in Orwell Cove, P.E.I.

"It's just a stopgap measure to keep them supplied. We have heard from them that getting potatoes has become a problem, and that they're seeing already some disruption in the supply chain in Puerto Rico."

Weekly shipments 

Visser had three containers on a ship that was en route to Puerto Rico when the export ban came into place. 

"I understand they held it for a number of days. There was some confusion about whether those loads were allowed to enter, and I think it took several days to sort that out," Visser said.

"Since then, they've been released and delivered to our customers. So that's really good news."

Randy Visser says the export ban has meant a loss in sales of about 40 loads of potatoes to Puerto Rico over the last two weeks, worth more than a quarter of a million dollars. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Visser said Puerto Rico usually receives 20 loads of potatoes from the Maritimes each week, mostly from P.E.I., leaving every Monday from Halifax.

Visser said the export ban has meant a loss in sales of about 40 loads of potatoes to Puerto Rico over the last two weeks, worth more than a quarter of a million dollars. 

"It's a relatively big number, but when you start to add on what's not being shipped to the eastern U.S., or to the U.S. continent," Visser said, "that's only a fraction."

The P.E.I. Potato Board has estimated that the export ban is costing the Island economy about $2 million a week. 

A truckload of P.E.I. potatoes in Puerto Rico. The P.E.I. Potato Board says the Island ships $18-$20 million worth of potatoes to the U.S. territory in a normal production year. (Joe Colon Studio)

Impact on consumers

Visser said the export ban is also going to affect consumers in Puerto Rico, as his company will not be offering a Christmas ad, as it usually does, where retailers offer potatoes at a lower price.

"Unfortunately, with the need to source those potatoes from New Brunswick, we can't really offer a significant ad to our customers, so that's a disappointment to them," Visser said. 

I think they sympathize with us as well. They're not happy about it at all​​​​​—Randy Visser

"They'll be paying regular prices, and probably, eventually, will start to pay more." 

Visser said there is also high demand for New Brunswick potatoes right now, so his company has had to pay more for those potatoes, and is selling them for the same price. 

He said there will also be certain potato products that he won't be able to supply from New Brunswick, meaning less variety on store shelves in Puerto Rico.

Visser said his customers in Puerto Rico are following the situation closely, and hoping for a quick resolution.

Visser said the export ban is also going to affect consumers in Puerto Rico, as his company will not be offering a Christmas ad, as it usually does, where retailers offer potatoes at a lower price. (Submitted by Caribbean Produce)

"I think they sympathize with us as well. They're not happy about it at all," Visser said. 

"I understand that several have connected with [United States Department of Agriculture] in the continental U.S. to stress the importance of the P.E.I. supply to their supply chain, and so hopefully that will have some positive impact to getting the border open again." 

'An important staple'

In San Juan, one of P.E.I.'s customers is also expressing concerns about the supply chain and the impact on prices for consumers in Puerto Rico. 

Ángel R. Santiago Colón, president of Caribbean Produce Exchange, in the company's warehouse in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He says he is concerned about the impact on the supply and price of potatoes. (Joe Colon, Studio Inc.2016.)

"We are monitoring the situation, analyzing various scenarios and options at this time," said Ángel R. Santiago Colón, president of Caribbean Produce Exchange, in a statement to CBC News. 

"This disruption causes an unexpected impact on supply and pricing, as well as our business model, given the fact that potatoes are an important staple in the daily diet of Puerto Rican families and a leading product in our company's portfolio. It also comes at an important season of the year given the holidays."

The issue was also discussed last week in Washington. Jenniffer González Colón, the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, discussed P.E.I. potato exports during a meeting with Canadian International Trade Minister Mary Ng.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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. Nancy.Russell@cbc.ca

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