Potato export crisis spurs increased mental health support for P.E.I. farmers

·3 min read
The 2021 potato crop has been called the best in generations. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)
The 2021 potato crop has been called the best in generations. (Shane Hennessey/CBC - image credit)

P.E.I. Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson wants Island farmers to know they don't have to face the stress and worry prompted by the suspension of potato exports to the United States on their own.

Following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields in October, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency announced on Monday a suspension on the export of P.E.I. potatoes to the U.S.

Thompson said it's been "a very frustrating week."

"Lots of emotions — everything from shock to anger to just pure unbelievable," Thompson told Island Morning on Wednesday.

Potato wart disfigures potatoes and reduces yield, but is not a threat to human health. The U.S. does list the fungus as an agricultural pest of serious concern.

Federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has said trade was suspended to prevent a ban from the American side. She said felt trade would resume more quickly if trade was stopped from the Canadian side of the border.

Brian Higgins/CBC
Brian Higgins/CBC

The U.S. is a major market for the Island, worth about $120 million annually, according to the P.E.I. Potato Board.

Along with other supports, the provincial Agriculture Department announced Monday it would be increasing resources for the Farmers Talk program, a helpline available to farmers facing mental health issues.

A farmer himself, Thompson said he understands the stress potato growers are facing.

"These are my neighbours. These are friends and family that we all know and I knew how much it was going to affect them," he said.

'Devastating for farmers'

This year's potato crop in P.E.I. has been called the best in generations, following three poor growing years — there were difficult harvests in muddy weather in 2018 and 2019, and a drought in 2020.

"It's just devastating for farmers," said Thompson.

"I spent yesterday talking to a lot of them and they were … so optimistic that they finally got their head above water after a couple of disastrous years. There was a lot of optimism and hope in the industry and it was all just brought down."

Thompson said he is a strong advocate for mental health on the farm, and it was a top priority for him to make sure farmers know they will have the support they need.

He said the government is ready to spend whatever it takes to provide the helpline with the resources it needs to make sure no call goes unanswered.

"There is an awful lot of stress, especially when you have no control over what happens. You do everything right, and all of the sudden with a stroke of the pen your world is turned upside down," said Thompson.

"There's always someone to talk to. You're not alone here."

Still no answers

Thompson said he spoke with Bibeau about the crisis Tuesday evening.

He said he is confident that Bibeau is doing everything she can to restart exports, but he said there is still no information about what would make the U.S. comfortable with importing P.E.I. potatoes again, or when that might happen.


"I have no answers and that's the frustrating part," said Thompson.

"We really need to get some answers. Even if it's outrageous, what we have to do, we will try to do it. But we just haven't had any direction yet, which is disappointing."

Farmers looking for mental health assistance can call the helpline at 1-800-218-2885 or look for information on the website.

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