P.E.I. seed potato growers shut out of Canadian markets on top of U.S. export ban

·4 min read
Billy Cameron grows seed and table potatoes on the family farm in Hampton, P.E.I. and is vice-chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board.   (Submitted by Billy Cameron  - image credit)
Billy Cameron grows seed and table potatoes on the family farm in Hampton, P.E.I. and is vice-chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board. (Submitted by Billy Cameron - image credit)

P.E.I. farmers who grow seed potatoes are not only shut out of the U.S. market right now; under current rules, they can't ship anywhere else in Canada either.

The seed potato growers say they already have customers who are cancelling orders, and they worry losing that business even after the ban is lifted.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended trade in fresh P.E.I. potatoes to the U.S. on Nov. 21. The move was in response to American concerns about the discovery of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields in October.

The ministerial order also restricted the movement of seed potatoes from P.E.I., both internationally and domestically.

Initially, in early November 2021, seed potatoes were prohibited only from being shipped south of the border.

Losing customers

Billy Cameron grows seed and table potatoes on the family farm in Hampton, P.E.I., and is vice-chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board.

"Customers have started looking for options. No question, and that is completely understandable. The situation we've been put in, we don't have a timeline. There's no hard dates on this," Cameron said.

"Completely understandable of the customers looking for new seeds. They need to continue their businesses and move along."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

The U.S. border was closed to seed potatoes in November 2020 as well, after the discovery of potato wart that fall.

The border re-opened for export in March, but Island seed growers say it's a double whammy this time, being shut out of Canada as well.

It's very frustrating and hard to come up with any type of plan whatsoever for 2022.
— Billy Cameron

"We've never experienced a domestic shutdown like this before — certainly since I've been around. So your options are very limited currently. Seed is restricted to Prince Edward Island," Cameron said.

"You have a lot of potatoes in line, with hundreds of millions of pounds of table potatoes that also don't have a home. So it's very frustrating and hard to come up with any type of plan whatsoever for 2022."

'It's pretty discouraging'

Greg Stavert is also a fifth-generation potato grower, based in Freetown, P.E.I., who has already had customers cancelling orders from Ontario and Quebec.

"We were supplying them with quality potatoes for 10 or 15 years, and to have them call and not want them anymore — it's pretty discouraging," Stavert said

"We start grading about the end of March, and that would be our first big cheque coming in, to get caught up on last year's bills."

We still have a couple of orders to go to New Brunswick and Ontario that haven't been cancelled yet. But that's just a phone call away. — Greg Stavert

Stavert estimated that his farm could face about a 40-per-cent loss in sales, exceeding half a million dollars

"We still have a couple of orders to go to New Brunswick and Ontario that haven't been cancelled yet. But that's just a phone call away, if this keeps keeps on any longer," he said.

Submitted by Greg Stavert
Submitted by Greg Stavert

Stavert said he can still sell his seed potatoes here on P.E.I., but that's a concern as well.

He's not sure what kind of demand for seed there will be in 2022.

"If they have buildings full of product that they didn't sell, they're not going to have money to purchase seed this year," Stavert said.

"With the unknown in their markets, they might not grow as many acres or varieties that we supply to them."

Submitted by Greg Stavert
Submitted by Greg Stavert

Long-term damage

Stavert said many customers place their seed orders more than a year ahead, so at this point he would normally be talking to his customers about what they will need in 2023.

Both seed growers said they also worry about the long-term damage to P.E.I.'s reputation.

"I would say once they get away from Prince Edward Island seed potatoes, they're probably not going to come back," Stavert said.

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

"It's very hard to calculate in dollars the long-term damage that has happened to date," Cameron said. "Going forward, it's very difficult to shake that off your image."

About 15 per cent of potatoes grown on P.E.I. are used for seed.

The U.S. has been the single biggest international buyer. In 2019, $3.1 million of P.E.I.'s total $4.5 million in seed potato exports went to U.S. buyers.

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