Many potato growers want to know who is to blame after US market flooded with cheaper products
At Pauline Studney’s potato farm, in rural P.E.I., there is a common saying that stands out: “potatoes get all the jobs”.
Potatoes are the Canadian province’s lifeblood – the largest cash crop by value and the fifth largest by production. The right combination of nutrients and water offers a world of nutritional benefits and sustenance, above all, but the resource is not without challenges.
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In July, the Canadian government passed federal legislation to impose tariffs of 5% to 7% on American potatoes if Canada is unable to resolve the long-standing trade dispute between the two countries. The idea is that the tariffs will help stabilize prices and prices will slowly adjust to a level more in line with domestic production.
Two months later, the federal ministry of agriculture sent a letter to the United States agricultural department, informing it that the tariffs would take effect on 1 January 2019 unless the matter was settled.
But since then, the issue has shown no signs of resolution.
“The actual sanction date is 2 January,” says Studney, president of the P.E.I Potato Board. “Things are dragging along quite nicely until that day and then after that date it’s kind of a patchwork quilt of how we meet that.”
The dispute began back in 2014 when a former P.E.I. potato farmer alleged the Canadian government was selling an inferior version of potatoes directly to the US at lower prices than it would sell them to Canadian consumers. The P.E.I. farmers lost their case and said the change in price had a significant impact on the business.
While farmers still collect crop insurance payments from the 2010-12 planting season (when they allege the lower-quality potatoes were first put into the market), many growers have raised concerns over whether they can afford to pay more or lower the price of potatoes they sell in the market.
Market prices tend to go up and down but, even so, some farmers say they can no longer sell their potatoes for more than what they need to cover expenses.
“Our losses aren’t only from the tariff but from a depressed market,” says Studney. “Those are the losses we have had to absorb because nobody is buying our product.”
The potatoes that yield the most money have been taken away and given to others and the losses can’t be afforded
The dispute has now landed in the provincial legislature, where for months, hard-line opposition parties have tried to link the federal Conservative party’s handling of the issue to the popular Mr & Mrs Potatoes, a short, David Foster-style TV show that aimed to encourage farming families to raise more meat.
Many potato growers have long been frustrated with the show, which has devoted hundreds of hours to scrutinizing the farming industry and highlighting its problems. In one episode, Mr & Mrs Potatoes even made a reference to the Potatoes for Good campaign, which was launched in 1998 to increase people’s understanding of the advantages of growing potatoes, for instance in making food.
In 2009, the show made a plea to George Weston, the owner of the multinational company that later put the campaign on hold, asking him to reconsider. “People don’t want to see them being blamed for all the negative things that the industry is doing,” said one announcer in the segment.
The show, now devoted almost entirely to ridding the world of the stinky, fat, hard, tasty-looking green thing that no one wants, still airs on several Canadian networks – including one of the most popular new shows on TV, The Good Place.
For the past year, P.E.I. potato farmers have been waging an unofficial war against the TV show. Numerous farmers attended the federal spring food security conference in Ottawa, which is the second-biggest food event in the country. In September, some local growers asked Weston to meet with them.
“I believe that the producers, in essence, can get off their high horse and acknowledge that the federal government may have made a mistake,” said Garfield Krampe, president of the Canadian Potato Council. “The potato producers wish that the producer who is responsible for the bad business is put in the crossh