Potato farmers meet 2022 fraught with uncertainty as trade ban continues

·4 min read
The P.E.I. Potato Board has started a social media campaign to push the resumption of fresh potato exports to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. (Kirk Pennell/CBC - image credit)
The P.E.I. Potato Board has started a social media campaign to push the resumption of fresh potato exports to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. (Kirk Pennell/CBC - image credit)

It's been a tough holiday break for P.E.I.'s potato farmers, as they are into a new year with no end in sight to the ban on fresh potato exports to the U.S.

Six weeks have passed since the Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued the trade ban based on the discovery of potato wart on two of the Island's fields.

P.E.I. Potato Board chair John Visser said the days leading up to 2022 have been "very disheartening" for farmers, with the uncertainty on when trade will be able to resume constantly looming over their heads.

"While Christmas holidays were going on, our lives do continue, and the despair — whatever other words you want to use — are still there there. It hasn't changed," he said.

Late last month, the CFIA released results of a national survey which found no evidence of the fungus in 1,000 fields tested across Canada — including almost 200 on P.E.I.

Visser said the results are "one piece of the puzzle" to start getting potatoes shipped south of the border.

"They were the results that all of us potato farmers on P.E.I. expected. We did not expect to find any wart," he said. "Hopefully there'll be some movement between Canada and the United States on that ... There's no reason there shouldn't be some movement."

MPs urge Ottawa to end seed potato export ban domestically

A recent letter addressed to Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau which was signed by three MPs from P.E.I., said the results show measures to prevent the spread of potato wart in case of a localized outbreak are working.

Heath MacDonald, Sean Casey and Robert Morrissey asked the government in a letter to "convey immediately" the results to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

They also urged Ottawa to reopen the domestic market for seed potatoes, which was also suspended as part of the CFIA's decision. Seed potato exports to the U.S. had been halted earlier.

"It's apparent [the CFIA believes] in their science, and we certainly believe in their science, and that's what we've been told the past month or so. And so we felt that 'You know what, let's continue this conversation and let's put a push here to see if we can get our domestic market opened for seed potatoes,'" MacDonald said.

"It's what we can control. We're shipping potatoes across the country now and we felt that if we can do that, we should be able to do it with seed ... We felt that if it's in our control and if it's on the CFIA's control to do this, then let's give this a push."

MacDonald said Minister Bibeau responded to the letter "right away" and said government is working on it, and that the survey's results had already been shared to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Veteran Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay was the only Island MP not to sign the letter.

'We're going to lose over $120 million'

In a statement, the minister said all his colleagues in cabinet want to find a solution to the situation, and that the government will do everything it can to get potatoes back to the U.S.

"I can assure you the potato wart situation is my absolute top priority, as it is with all of my Island colleagues," he said.

"I've seen a lot of trade issues come and go over the years, both as a farmer and as a politician, and I can assure you that playing politics and casting blame on each other isn't going to convince the Americans."

MacDonald said it's "standard protocol" that if a backbencher writes a letter to a minister, most times other ministers don't sign the letter. He said MacAulay is also working hard to get the suspension lifted.

"Right now, we need to be all on the same page and pushing hard to get the border reopen," he said.

Meanwhile, the P.E.I. Potato Board has started a social media campaign to push the resumption of fresh potato exports to the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

The federal government has also pledged $28 million which will go toward farmers affected by the suspension of trade.

But Visser said he hopes that announcement is just the beginning.

"I trust that this was Part 1 of two or three parts because the amount of money that's going to be lost because of what happened with the order that got put on by the government, this doesn't even come close to ... covering the losses," he said.

"The sales overall, at the board, we're going to lose over $120 million, so just do the math."

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