P.E.I. Growers: 'Crunch Time' as Planting Nears, U.S. Border Remains Closed

Published online: Mar 23, 2022 Articles Sara Fraser
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Source: CBC News

Potato growers on Prince Edward Island say they're running out of time as they try to decide what varieties and how many hectares to plant this spring without knowing whether they'll have access to the U.S. market.

It's still not clear when U.S. officials will finish their potato wart risk assessment and make a decision on reopening mainland United States to P.E.I. potatoes.

"We're down to the wire right now, with our intentions of what we're going to plant," said grower Chad Robertson, who farms in eastern P.E.I. and also sits on the Island's potato board. He said with spring planting season about a month away, growers are anxious for an answer.

"We need to bring that seed that's going to plant next year's crop home to our home farms here within the next few weeks. There'll be some planters rolling in the southern part of the province probably in the middle of April — so we're really getting down to crunch time."

He said given the now-record costs of fertilizer, fuel, and other planting expenses, farmers can't afford to gamble on whether they will able to sell to the U.S. this coming season.

"The appetite just really isn't there to gamble too much on putting a crop in the ground. We don't know where the market will be to sell that crop," he said. "We want to be cautious with our planting intentions, make sure we have a known market to sell into." 

U.S. Farmers Planting Now

He said farmers have pre-booked seed from P.E.I. growers but their final decision isn't made until they pick it up and take it home to plant — leaving those seed growers in the lurch with more product they can't sell. 

Robertson said he thinks the U.S. National Potato Council is aggressively trying to keep P.E.I. potatoes out. 

"They'd love nothing more than to take up our market share if they could in the U.S. by planting more potatoes," he said. "It might turn out to bite them as well next year if they have too many and we're allowed in there, we'll have a bit of a trade advantage." 

The potato board and the federal Conservatives are urging federal politicians to take retaliatory measures against American produce coming into Canada. 

'No Justification for This'

Potato board general manager Greg Donald said Canadian federal agriculture minister Marie Claude Bibeau's negotiations over potato wart as a technical issue since the U.S. banned Island potatoes last November have failed. 

"It's a trade issue and they're being intimidated by the U.S., and they're not dealing with them the way they need to be dealt with. In the meantime, the situation here has become dire," Donald said. "There's no justification for this.

"We're running out of hope for sure," Robertson added. "We'd be ready for retaliatory measures."  

In February, P.E.I. farmers destroyed a good portion of last year's bumper crop of potatoes, running them through snow blowers and spreading them on frozen fields. Some went to food banks, and to Puerto Rico when that market reopened the second week of February. Donald said federal compensation didn't even cover the cost to produce those potatoes, let alone their market value. 

Roberston said farmers won't plant some varieties of potatoes popular with Americans — like red, yellow and many organic potatoes — unless the border reopens.

Donald said he has heard from some farmers who usually plant potatoes who have decided not to plant any this season. 

"We need something done right away," he said.