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Piles of Potatoes

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Shuttered restaurants across North America are leading to piles of potatoes and fries, which has farmers asking for government support.

Pat Owen is thankful he’s shipping potatoes once again to the McCain plant at Portage la Prairie, Man. But he’s still worried about the 190,000 pounds of potatoes he has left in storage, usually he’d be down to 120,000 pounds by this time of year.

If we can’t sell everything to McCain, we’ll “just have to dump it in the field. It’s not like grain, you can’t store it till next year,” Owen says in a phone interview from a field on his farm near Carman, Man. on April 28. “It would be quite a loss if we had to do that.”

Owen isn’t alone in his worries as potatoes farmers across Canada have experienced a 70 per cent drop in demand. Canadian french fry processors are facing an unprecedented drop in demand with restaurants having closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Once restaurants are able to reopen across North America, things won’t go back to normal right away. There will likely still be physical distancing rules in place which could reduce restaurant capacity by up to 50 per cent, the April 22 issue of North American Potato Market News notes. Some restaurants may not reopen due to bankruptcy. In the best-case scenario, foodservice sales will only fall by 20 per cent for 2020/21, the report estimates.

Demand has increased for fresh potatoes though as Canadians stay home and cook their own meals. Some potatoes destined for processing have been able to be rerouted to the fresh market, but not all processing potatoes are suitable for use.

The potatoes left in the storage from last year aren’t the only headache farmers are facing. From coast to coast growers have either started planting this year’s crop or will be doing so soon.

“There’s no guarantee that if the economy doesn’t turn around that there’s going to be demand for next year’s crop. It’s a little bit unnerving at this point in time,” Owen says.

Owen recently found out McCain had to cut his contract for the 2020/21 potato crop by 15 per cent due to the reduced demand from the pandemic. He was able to stop some of his seed orders and now only has what he needs on his farm. He will have 130 acres less of potatoes this year, he plans to plant another crop such as corn or canola on the land instead.

Despite being able to pivot his planting plans, he’s still going to lose money. “We kind of count on our potato farm. It’s our big money crop, that’s why we like to maximize our acres,” Owen says.

Owen would like to see the government step in and support farmers by buying the unsold potatoes. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has announced the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) program which will see the USDA spend US$19 billion in direct support payments for unsold crops and directly purchase unsold fresh produce for use in food banks.

“In the U.S. they’ve stepped in and supported their potato growers. If we don’t do that here, we’re going to lose market share I believe because we’re going to lose potato farmers,” Owen says.

On Prince Edward Island, the largest potato producer in Canada, the provincial government has announced a $4.7 million support program which will provide help for shipping and storage costs for processing in order to mitigate a potato surplus.

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