Planting season underway on P.E.I. after winter of stress and uncertainty

·5 min read
This field in Roseberry, P.E.I., is one of the first ready to be planted for G Visser & Sons in eastern Prince Edward Island, where planting starts earlier than other parts of the Island.   (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)
This field in Roseberry, P.E.I., is one of the first ready to be planted for G Visser & Sons in eastern Prince Edward Island, where planting starts earlier than other parts of the Island. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)

The first fields of potatoes are being planted on Prince Edward Island, after a winter of stress and uncertainty caused by the closure of the U.S. border for more than four months.

Planting usually begins weeks earlier on the eastern end of the Island, where the land dries up more quickly, but should be in full swing across the province by mid-May.

For Randy Visser and his nephew Ben Visser, it is a relief to be able to plan for this season, knowing that exports have resumed as of April 4, when the first truckloads rolled south to the United States.

The Vissers said they need to put behind them the memories of last winter, including watching some of their crop being destroyed.

"A bit nerve-racking. Something that I didn't hope to ever have to see again in my life," said Ben Visser, farm operations manager for G. Visser & Sons.

"I was only young the first time, and I remember it vaguely. But this one hit a little closer to home, and hopefully we don't have to go through it again."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

"Given the year that we've had, and some of the challenges, it's a bit of new hope, a fresh start," company CEO Randy Visser said.

"There was a lot of uncertainty. If the border would not have opened before we started planting, we probably would have significantly cut back on our acreage, and looked at other crops to grow."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

Randy Visser said it has been good to see his company's sales picking up, starting with shipments to Puerto Rico that were able to resume on February 9.

Visser said there are, on average, about 20 containers a week going to Puerto Rico, and on holidays that can go up to 40 or more.

I would hope that there will be some things learned from what just happened here.
—Randy Visser, G Visser & Sons

"It took a little while for that to take off but it's pretty steady now and going well," Visser said.

"The mainland U.S. has been really good. Right from the day the border opened, we were sending trucks, and there's lots of good demand, lots of good comments from our customers, happy to have us back again."

'We just move on from where we are'

Like many other growers, the Vissers did destroy some of last year's crop, though they did not want to say how much.

"I would say we did the best we could, with what we knew. We thought sometime in March, likely, the border would open so we planned according to that," Visser said.

"Could we have kept some, maybe? I don't know. But we're quite busy now. I think the number was pretty close. And you can't second guess that now any more. I think we just move on from where we are."

Submitted by Colton Griffin
Submitted by Colton Griffin

Visser said the potatoes that went to food banks across Canada, and are continuing to be shipped with federal funding support, helped bring some good to a bad situation.

"Those kind of stories are good news stories where at least you're doing something positive by supplying food to other food banks in Canada. And that's still going on today," Visser said.

Submitted by Nick Jennery
Submitted by Nick Jennery

Visser said he hopes he and others in the industry never have to face a crisis like this one ever again.

"I would hope that there will be some things learned from what just happened here this year, and that we as an industry, we do whatever we can to make sure that doesn't happen again," Visser said.

"I think we need to work closer with CFIA, and and have better communication," Visser said.

"See what we can do to give our trading partners the confidence that they should have in the potatoes that we are producing."

Strong sales

In the three weeks since the U.S. border reopened, the P.E.I. Potato Board reported sales to the United States have been strong.

There have been 293 truckloads heading to the mainland U.S. so far in April, carrying 14.6 million pounds of potatoes.

Sales to Puerto Rico in April were 73 loads, representing 3.6 million pounds.

Kirk Pennell/CBC
Kirk Pennell/CBC

Meanwhile, Potato Board general manager Greg Donald said P.E.I. seed growers have received some compensation from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, to help them with losses from last season.

"Seed growers that lost business on account of the ministerial order that was put in place, that prevents them from selling seed potatoes off P.E.I.," Donald said.

"Some of the details are still unclear, but they can get reimbursement for lost sales. It certainly helps, and it'll help for last year. But unfortunately, it still doesn't provide any assistance for the coming season, or future seasons."

Submitted by Sheilagh Annear
Submitted by Sheilagh Annear

With planting season underway, Donald said growers in the seed sector are making some difficult choices.

"Some really tough decisions because most of the operations, their infrastructure, their equipment, their warehousing, everything is geared around seed production," Donald said. "Then added to that this year is the high costs. It'll be the most expensive crop they've ever planted, so they don't want to overplant."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

Donald said some seed producers will also be looking to other crops, at least for this season.

"They'll be looking at either a cover crop, or a cereal, or an oilseed, or corn, other crops that can generate income," Donald said.

"We're trying to put together a program that would help those seed producers in the interim, if they had to grow a crop just for this season, until markets open back up again."

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