Canadian potato farmers have a glut of spuds after demand drops due to coronavirus

Potato farmers in Manitoba and PEI are facing another rough year after two years of harvest losses. Now, because of coronavirus this is looking like another tough one.

Manitoba potato farmers are facing another rough year after two years of harvest losses. Now, because of coronavirus this year is looking like another tough one. Growers are unable to sell their produce in the normal fashion, and have had to leave some spuds in the ground.

Processing plants throughout Canada and the United States have seen a drop in demand after restaurants and bars began to close due to the pandemic, according to CBC News.

Producers in Manitoba are storing many millions of kilograms of potatoes and have nowhere to send them, says Dan Sawatzky who is the manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association based in Portage la Prairie.

"We do need some help in this situation," Sawatzky said. "It's very difficult to handle any more losses at the grower level."

He added that Manitoba potatoes are mainly used in restaurants for french fries or patties. He said that the recent increase in retail sales that has been seen only accounts for around 15 percent of Manitoba’s market.

Sawatzky said that around 254 million kilograms of potatoes are currently being kept in storage by Manitoba farms. Last year, the harvest was more than one billion kilograms, according to Statistics Canada.

"Everyone struggled and incurred extra costs with the wet harvest," he said. "Everyone is feeling this and now when we see the market drop off as it has... we are seeing the potential, the possibility that we will not be able to sell what we did salvage."

Pat Owen, who is a River Trail Potato Co. partner said that he currently has ten million kilograms in storage. He said that he has twice as many as he had this time last year.

"We're not sure they're going to go, but obviously we have high hopes they are going to go to market," he said. "If they don't, that's a huge hit."

Owen noted that the potatoes that he keeps in non-refrigerated storage should keep until about June. The ones in refrigerated storage will keep until about August.

"They're a perishable item, not like corn or wheat where you can store from year to year," he said.

United Potato Growers of Canada president, Kevin Maclsaac said the effects are being felt all across the country.

"It's an issue that's not only in Manitoba, but it's an issue right across Canada," he said.

Prince Edward Island—who produces even more potatoes than Manitoba has also seen producers who have had to leave potatoes in the ground because of last year's weather.

"It's really tough. It's really stressful for growers," said MacIsaac. "They've had two years of very difficult harvests."

McCain Foods has two Manitoba processing facilities and has had to lay off workers due to the circumstances.

"All McCain potato processing plants in Canada are impacted by temporary layoffs, to varying degrees," McCain said in a statement to CBC News. "The specific numbers will fluctuate by site at any point in time according to customer demands, which are changing constantly in these uncertain times."

"The situation is being monitored daily to ensure that everything that can be done, to support McCain employees through this unprecedented but temporary challenge, is being done."

Owen, Sawatzky and Maclsaac are all looking for the government to offer the industry more assistance.

On Friday, Premier Brian Pallister said that he has been talking about the agriculture industry with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland and plans to address the issue with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"This is a monumental issue for a province with a big piece of our pie chart of GDP … associated with ag," said Pallister. "Whether it's ag or related processing industries, this is an important industry for us."

Owens noted that he has to plant his crop again this year despite the possible risks.

"We have a lot on the line here right now," he added. "We have a lot at risk right now if these potatoes don't move."