PEI·Special Report

As potatoes become cattle feed, farmers wonder what the post-COVID new normal will bring

COVID-19 has led to an uncertain spring for potato farmers in P.E.I. and across the country, with expectations the road to recovery could be a long one.

'I don't think we've ever been so apprehensive about planting'

Potato farmer Vernon Campbell of Grahams Road, P.E.I., has survived a lot of crises in the potato industry in more than 40 years of farming. But he says COVID is different, affecting his neighbours who work in fishing and tourism. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

This is the second instalment in a new series from CBC Atlantic called Farming your Food: How Atlantic Canadian producers are coping in COVID. We're taking a close look at the food on your plate and how it gets there, starting with some of the people responsible for that food, the producers. 

As more and more Prince Edward Island potato farmers take to their fields for spring planting, David Francis is left with 700,000 pounds of unsold seed potatoes in cold storage.

It takes years to produce each batch of seed potatoes, the work starting in a lab, then moving into the field as each batch is bred and multiplied until it's ready for market.

In a normal year, Francis would slice those potatoes into big pieces. Other farmers would buy them and plant them, and if the weather co-operated those 700,000 pounds would yield upwards of 10 million pounds of potatoes in the fall, ready to be processed into french fries.

But this is not a normal year.

"On March the 12th, we had every single potato on our farm booked and sold," said Francis.

Seed could feed cattle

Within 24 hours the NHL had postponed its season, both the prime minister and P.E.I.'s premier went into self-isolation, and Francis and other seed potato growers started losing sales as P.E.I.'s potato industry — the biggest economic driver in the province — began to contract in response to COVID-19.

Rather than being sold as seed, Francis said his remaining potatoes will likely end up as feed for his cattle — an expensive treat for the bovines, resulting in a six-figure loss of income for Francis.

David Francis of Lady Fane, P.E.I., holds up two of his surplus seed potatoes. Behind him, some of the 700,000 pounds of seed potatoes, which at one time he considered sold. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

"That is not where I wanted them to go," he said. "It's a scenario that I'm kind of not very excited about if you want to know the truth."

Hundreds of producers across Canada find themselves in a similar situation, according to the United Potato Growers of Canada (UPG).

This is my 42nd crop and I don't think we've ever been so apprehensive about planting as this spring.— David Francis

As demand from the restaurant industry has stalled, french fry processors are asking their growers to plant anywhere from 15 to 35 per cent fewer spuds this year, according to UPG, leading to cancelled orders for seed.

The group said that's created a surplus of 80 million pounds of unsold seed potatoes.

What seed potatoes look like when they're ready for planting. The potatoes are chopped and covered in powder to prevent them from sticking together. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Meanwhile, estimates continue to grow as to how many french fry potatoes from last year's harvest across Canada are still sitting in storage and won't be processed.

'That's a big pile of potatoes'

In April, UPG estimated that surplus at 200 million pounds. But as production continues to falter and plants lay off staff, that estimate has now reached 680 million pounds, still with no clear plan as to where all those potatoes could end up.

"That's a big pile of potatoes to deal with," said UPG's general manager Kevin MacIsaac.

Vernon Campbell had 12 million pounds of potatoes in storage this spring, grown for the french fry industry but more than processor Cavendish Farms was prepared to take. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

He said a plan from the federal government to spend $50 million on surplus food to be distributed through food banks wouldn't even be enough to cover the value of the surplus potatoes — and the same money is also intended to pay for poultry and other products.

"At this time, it is clear that it falls short of our urgent needs," MacIsaac told the House of Commons standing committee on agriculture and agri-food on May 15.

A spokesperson for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada said Ottawa is still determining what commodities will be eligible for the food surplus purchase program, and said parameters "will be made public in the near future."

Some good news for growers

There have been some bright points for the industry. Demand for grocery store potatoes and for potato chips has increased through COVID, as more people make their own meals and Canadians hunker down at home with their favourite snack foods.

But processing potatoes into french fries and other frozen products represents up to 70 per cent of the industry, said MacIsaac, adding in some provinces production has fallen by more than half.

The P.E.I. Potato Board said 100 million pounds of P.E.I. potatoes would have become compost had it not been for the intervention of the provincial government.

One of two Cavendish Farms processing facilities in New Annan, P.E.I. In April the company said it was curtailing production in light of reduced demand for french fries. With close to 700 employees at peak production, the company is the largest private employer in the province. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The province is providing $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.

The board said that protected $13 million in revenues for the roughly 80 Island farmers who grow for the company.

We're all in this together. It's a mean, old soup is what it is.— Vernon Campbell

One of those growers is Vernon Campbell, who had 12 million pounds of potatoes sitting in two giant storage bins on his property in Grahams Road when he started spring planting.

"As a farmer we hate to see what we've put our life's work into not go to where it should go," Campbell said of the prospect of dumping potatoes.

"It's the same as dumping milk or having to euthanize hogs.… It's not what we do."

It also would have cost his operation more than a million dollars in lost revenue.

The P.E.I. Potato Board has said Island growers with contracts with Cavendish Farms had their contract volumes reduced by 15 per cent for the coming season. The board said it expected to see similar reductions in acres planted by other Island potato growers. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

This growing season, with his contract volume with Cavendish Farms cut by 15 per cent, Campbell said his business will be in "survival mode," just trying to make it through to another year.

Campbell buys seed from Francis. Both men started farming in the late 1970s after becoming friends during university.

'Nobody it doesn't touch'

Over those years, P.E.I.'s potato industry has been rocked by numerous crises which were devastating at the time, including disease outbreaks that cut off access to the U.S. market. 

But Campbell said this is something very different. 

"Those are crises that just seemed to affect the potato industry. This virus [COVID] is so widespread there's nobody it doesn't touch," he said, noting the pandemic is affecting all of P.E.I.'s primary industries.

"My lobster fishing friends who've lost two weeks out of their season.…  The tourism operators who are looking at just a dismal season," Campbell said. "We're all in this together. It's a mean, old soup is what it is."

Everybody is very concerned about what the new norm is going to be.— David Francis

There are no expectations for a quick recovery once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. MacIsaac said his group is expecting a slow recovery taking a year or longer that might never get back to where things left off.

"We're not so sure that it will recover actually back to pre-COVID levels [of] consumption," said MacIsaac. "This has changed lives for everyone in terms of the way we eat, in terms of the way we use our food and purchase our food. So we're not sure it will go back to that level."

While looking for signs of recovery, producers have had to make decisions this spring that will affect them well into 2021, when they'll be selling much of this year's harvest.

Francis said he planted the same number of acres of seed potatoes this spring as he did last year — hoping part of next year's crop won't also end up as cattle feed.

"This is my 42nd crop and I don't think we've ever been so apprehensive about planting as this spring," he said.

"Everybody is very concerned about what the new norm is going to be."

More from CBC P.E.I.


Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.