Potato packers on P.E.I. trying to keep workers on the job

·5 min read
At Mid Isle Farms in Albany, P.E.I., they are packing potatoes heading to their Canadian customers, but 60 per cent of their sales so far this year were south of the border and they were expecting that to continue, or even grow.   (Nancy Russell/CBC - image credit)
At Mid Isle Farms in Albany, P.E.I., they are packing potatoes heading to their Canadian customers, but 60 per cent of their sales so far this year were south of the border and they were expecting that to continue, or even grow. (Nancy Russell/CBC - image credit)

Many potato packing plants on P.E.I. are working at a fraction of their normal capacity, while some have shut down entirely.

At the ones still operating, supervisors are trying to spread out the work to keep as many people getting hours as possible.

On Nov. 21, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended U.S. trade in fresh P.E.I. potatoes following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields.

At Mid Isle Farms in Albany, P.E.I., they are packing potatoes heading to their Canadian customers, but 60 per cent of their sales so far this year were south of the border and they were expecting that to continue, or even grow.

Nancy Russell/CBC
Nancy Russell/CBC

"I'm here every day, but the workers, we're finding it hard to keep them busy. We've lost probably 60 per cent of our business stateside, so it's an impact on the company itself," said Dave Masters, a production supervisor at Mid Isle Farms for eight years.

"We have people here that's been here 30 years, and there's a lot of them has been here seven and eight years. They want to stay here, and keep busy and keep working. So, yes, it's difficult."

Not enough work

Masters said there would usually be between 27 and 30 people on the production line, when they are busy, and they are now down to 17 or 18.

We're unable to keep everybody busy because of the shutdown, so it's impacting us really bad.
— Dave Masters, Mid Isle Farms

The rest, he said, have been sent home because there is just not enough work.

"Right now, I guess they are either looking for work, or hoping that they're going to get called back when business picks up again," Masters said.

"Hopefully they have EI or something to fall back on right now. Other than that, we're unable to keep everybody busy because of the shutdown, so it's impacting us really bad."

Nancy Russell/CBC
Nancy Russell/CBC

Masters said the timing — just before Christmas — is especially unfortunate.

"The holiday season is usually a busy time for us, usually two weeks, three weeks before Christmas, we are really busy and that obviously is affecting us right now, we are down to half a crew," Masters said.

"It's going to affect a lot of people having the cash flow for Christmastime. We were en route to give a lot of hours. People would be making more money just before Christmas, and that's not going to happen."

Nancy Russell/CBC
Nancy Russell/CBC

Kim Gavin, who lives in nearby Borden-Carleton, has been part of the production crew for 10 years.

She is working this week, but the future is uncertain.

"Just happy to be here, to be working. I just got my EI going last week," Gavin said. "Just keep steady, keep going, hope for the best."

Losing workers

General manager Andrew Costa joined Mid Isle this fall, just as they were gearing up for a large harvest and lots of sales.

Now he's facing the consequences of the export ban to the United States and what it means to the employees.

"We are constantly focusing on trying to bring in the best people, and train them, and make sure that they're qualified to run their operations. But that takes time and skill and cost," Costa said.

Nancy Russell/CBC
Nancy Russell/CBC

"The concern is that we can't provide those hours, and then we're running the risk they need to go look for work elsewhere," Costa said.

"Then when the border does reopen, we're going to potentially be at a loss for production crew members to ensure that we're able to move the product that we need to at that time."

Every day that goes by is a major impact to our market as the food is perishable.
— Andrew Costa, Mid Isle Farms

Costa said he hopes the federal government and officials in Ottawa understand the urgency of the situation.

"We certainly don't have months. We don't have weeks. Day by day, it's really an impact here that we need to take into consideration," Costa said.

"Every day that goes by is a major impact to our market as the food is perishable and we need to be able to move that product."

Nancy Russell/CBC
Nancy Russell/CBC

Costa said he has started to think about what happens if the U.S. border does not open soon.

"There are lots of food banks across the country and there are areas that need food. We certainly want to try to move our product where we can," Costa said.

"But the harsh reality is that you're maybe looking at options of dumping product, and that's something every farmer, every grower, every packing shed wants to avoid."

Shane Hennessey/CBC
Shane Hennessey/CBC

The potato export ban has also had an impact beyond P.E.I.'s borders, as some producers have sent temporary foreign workers home early, because of a shortage of work.

At Russell Ching Ltd. in Souris, the production crew has been doing a mix of regular business with its Canadian customers, as well as helping to fill orders for an upcoming Christmas sale at an Ontario retailer. Brian Ching said that has provided a full week of work for his 15 staff.

At Vissers in Orwell Cove, a significantly reduced number of staff is also packing the few Canadian orders they still have. The company would usually sell 70 per cent of its potatoes into the U.S. market, including Puerto Rico.

Randy Visser said they have also been fortunate to find temporary employment for some of their employees elsewhere.

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