Canada needs to start 'thumping the table' on potato exports, says P.E.I. premier

Canada has lost the thread in its negotiations with the United States to resume exports of P.E.I. potatoes, says Premier Dennis King.

Programs designed to destroy millions of pounds of potatoes being created

Canada needs to start addressing the potato export crisis as a trade issue, not a science issue, says P.E.I. Premier Dennis King. (CBC)

Canada has lost the thread in its negotiations with the United States to resume exports of P.E.I. potatoes, says Premier Dennis King.

"We aren't thumping the table, so to speak, enough to get a firm and fast commitment," King told Island Morning host Mitch Cormier Tuesday.

By order of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the border was closed to P.E.I. potatoes in November following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields. Wart was first discovered on the Island in 2000. A management plan was put in place in consultation with the American government, and until November that had kept the border open for 20 years.

King said the U.S. continues to frame the issue in terms of science, and it is a mistake to allow that.

"The secretary of agriculture in the U.S. came out and said this was about science and we seem to allow that conversation to happen," he said.

"That has never been what we think here the issue is. This isn't about science."

King believes Canada would have more success if it addressed the problem as a trade issue.

No timeline, says U.S. agriculture secretary

P.E.I. farmers saw their first glimmer of hope in the crisis last week.

Following a meeting between Canadian Agriculture Minister Marie Claude Bibeau and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Bibeau said she was optimistic shipments of Island potatoes would start to head to Puerto Rico within two weeks, and to the broader U.S. market shortly after that.

The U.S. is reviewing Canada's information on potato wart, says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. (CBC)

Speaking to CBC News in Washington Monday, Vilsack confirmed the two-week plan for Puerto Rico, but expressed less confidence in P.E.I. potatoes being exported to the mainland in the near future.

"Our hope is that we're able to give in the next two weeks the go ahead to resume activity and trade," said Vilsack.

"There's no timeline in terms of the mainland, but we did indicate that we would be thoughtful given the concerns that were expressed to try to review that information relative to the mainland as quickly as we possibly could, and, you know, hopefully get that matter resolved. But there was no timeline."

Potato wart disfigures potatoes and makes them unmarketable, but is not a threat to human health. It is considered a serious agricultural pest.

Devastating loss

While farmers wait for an opportunity to resume exports, P.E.I. is working with the federal government to create programs to compensate farmers for destroying potatoes.

P.E.I. expected to ship about 300 million pounds of potatoes to the U.S. this year. With the border closed there is nowhere to sell those potatoes, and they will have to be destroyed.

"To see those potatoes destroyed is really devastating," said King.

"Not just farmers, but what it does to the overall economy of P.E.I. This is our biggest economic driver, and when potato farmers are struggling the rest of us will feel the pinch down the road."

King said the program will be announced soon, and he expects it to pay between eight and nine cents a pound. The potatoes have a market value of 15 to 16 cents a pound.

As the crisis continues, farmers are having to consider their plans for the spring, said King. Do they have the money to plant potatoes, and given the uncertainty of the market, should they?

"This has been a poorly handled situation from the very beginning and here we are with the pieces of that," said King.

Unhappy farmers

Alex Docherty, who owns Skye View Farms Limited in Elmwood, P.E.I., posted a video on Facebook destroying a truckload of seed potatoes. Docherty has been making videos since the potato wart crisis began.

"One way or another, I'm going to destroy at least seven million pounds that I know of right now, which we cancelled for off-Island seed," Docherty said in an interview. 

Docherty said growing season is looking bleak for him.

"I am 59 and I don't know what im going to do this spring. There's a whole bunch of other farmers in P.E.I. that are the same. I don't know of any [farmer] who does."

It's hard to comprehend the magnitude of potatoes farmers have to destroy, Docherty said. That's why he made the video.

"A lot of people have no idea what's happening, farmers know but I just figured there's a lot of people in P.E.I. didn't know."

Docherty is pessimistic about the future of potato farming on P.E.I.

"I don't know if it can ever recover, the seed industry is probably ruined forever. The table stock will eventually get straightened out. At what point? I am not sure."

For now, he hopes Puerto Ricans get their P.E.I. potatoes shipped in time. 

"There's three to four million people there who are dependent on our potatoes, so I feel bad for them."

With files from Katie Simpson and Nancy Russell