Original Published on Jul 27, 2022 at 06:34

By Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Potato crops are off to a great start this season in eastern PEI following months of nearly perfect weather conditions.

“I’ve never seen a stronger crop,” said Ray Keenan, potato farmer/co-owner of Rollo Bay Holdings. Should a half inch to an inch of rain per week fall on Kings County, he thinks this year’s crops could match or surpass last year’s second-to-none harvest.

However, 5,500 fewer acres than in 2021 were planted this spring for a total of 80,500 acres; the smallest acreage planted in PEI since 1991, according to Statistics Canada.

Craig Wallace, a director with the PEI Potato Board, representing processing growers in the western zone, says the reduction is the result of a few factors. 

Land dedicated to growing seed potatoes for export across Canada and into the US has dropped this season because a CFIA ban on PEI seed potato exports has continued since the agency detected potato wart in Island soil samples last November.

Mr Wallace said planting and growing an acre of potatoes is always an expensive process compared to other crops. Potatoes require carefully cultivated tuber ‘seeds’, lots of fertilizer and pest management systems compared to other vegetables and grains. If potatoes aren’t sold farmers can quickly run into millions of dollars in losses. 

This year the risk is even higher; fuel, fertilizer and equipment costs shot up like weeds this season, he said. 

Often farmers in contract with processors will grow extra acreage, prepared to shoulder a minor loss of profit in the worst case scenario but optimistic for an opportunity to sell additional spuds at a gain. Mr Wallace said farmers tended to stick strictly to planting what they areå sure to sell this year.  

Given last year’s excellent growing season, he added, some are thinking they will have no issue filling their contracts from fewer acres.

A sense of weary uncertainty, as well as a need to recover from last year’s financial blow when millions of pounds of potatoes were shredded across the Island, adds to farmer’s hesitancy to take bigger risks this year, Mr Wallace continued.

Paul MacAulay of Souris planted about 1,000 acres as usual this spring in the area around Souris out to St Peter’s Bay, Dundas and Forest Hill. Most of the potatoes are destined to be processed on-Island through Cavendish Farms.

Mr MacAulay’s fuel costs jumped and fertilizer leapt by about 70 per cent this season. But with the favourable growing conditions to date, he’s hopeful for a great season despite the increased investment.

Martien Hakkers of Lower Newtown says weather and growing conditions have been excellent in Southern Kings where he grows large-scale organic crops.

Ninety per cent of his potatoes are destined for the US. While he is hopeful CFIA will not implement another export ban on Island spuds, it’s hard not to worry a bit as the agency continues to scrutinize PEI soil.

“It’s like pins and needles,” Mr Hakkers said. “If there is another ban it would be devastating.”

Mr Hakkers planted an additional crop of organic onions to ensure he would have the cash flow he needs to carry on in a worst-case scenario. But overall, he is optimistic Island spuds will roll across the border without an issue.

Mr Wallace said even if CFIA finds potato wart on the Island through its ongoing investigation, the agency should not impose a wide-spread Island ban on table-stock or processed potato exports. 

“It shouldn’t have happened last fall,” he said.

There are a multitude of measures in place to ensure the potatoes exported will be safe even if there is a field or two where the disease is detected, he said.

Mr Hakkers has his fingers crossed hoping the price of fuel will continue to drop from record highs in June until digging season in the fall. 

Either way if the weather stays a steady course and the US is open to his exports, he’s expecting a bountiful year.

Acreage planted across Canada overall is on par with last year but planted acreage in the US dropped by about 3.5 per cent. This means fewer potatoes have been planted in North America overall.

Similar issues are at play in the US with higher-than-usual production costs leading to reduced seeded acreage, Victoria Stamper, manager of United Potato Growers of Canada, said. 

Idaho alone, a North American potato powerhouse, planted 25,000 fewer acres this year compared to last.

PEI farmers are expecting strong prices for their produce given the tightened supply across the continent.

This item reprinted with permission from The Eastern Graphic, Montague, Prince Edward Island