Weather isn’t helping potato shortage

Processing plants in Manitoba and Prince Edward Island now importing spuds from the U.S. to meet orders

Canada is short of potatoes.

As of May 1 there were 20.56 million hundredweight of processing potatoes in storage. That sounds like a lot, but it’s down 3.42 million cwt from May 2018, and 14.3 percent lower than last year.

Processing potatoes are used to make french fries and other frozen potato products.

“Our storage holdings (are) some of the lowest we’ve ever experienced,” said Kevin MacIsaac, United Potato Growers of Canada general manager.

The shortfall is most noticeable in Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, provinces with large processing plants that depend upon a reliable supply of local potatoes.

United Potato Growers of Canada data shows:

  • On May 1, Manitoba had 4.12 million cwt of processing potatoes in storage. That’s down 26.7 percent from the 5.6 million cwt in May 2018.
  • P.E.I. had 5.49 million cwt in storage, down 11.2 percent from 6.2 million in May 2018.
  • Alberta is the only province with more processing potatoes than 2018. The amount in storage is 6.28 million cwt, up 4.1 percent from last year.

In Manitoba, wet weather in September and early October made life difficult for potato growers. Then, extremely cold temperatures froze the soil the second week of October — making it nearly impossible to dig out potatoes.

“We ended up with about 5,200 acres left in the ground. It’s unprecedented,” said Dan Sawatzky, manager of the Keystone Potato Producers Association. “Growers didn’t have (enough) harvest days to get the crop off.”

The story was similar on P.E.I. It was an abnormally wet fall and potato growers weren’t able to harvest the entire crop.

To compensate for the shortage, operators of processing plants in P.E.I. and Manitoba have been importing potatoes from the U.S. and Alberta.

In the case of Cavendish Farms, which has a plant in New Annan, P.E.I., the potatoes are coming from the other side of North America.

“Initially, they (Cavendish) started in Alberta,” MacIsaac said. “Then when that was no longer available, they basically had to bring them in from Idaho.”

Moving potatoes from Idaho to P.E.I. is not easy.

The potatoes are transported to Alberta, off-loaded into rail cars and railed to Moncton. Then, off-loaded again and trucked to P.E.I.

Cavendish Farms and the processing companies in Manitoba, Simplot and McCain Foods, imported spuds because their plants have to operate at full capacity.

“Not only (because) of economies of scale, but also you can’t lose your customers,” MacIsaac said. “If you signed a contract… with a quick service restaurant, a year ago, you agreed to deliver that product to them.”

This is not new for Cavendish.

The company had to import potatoes from Idaho and Alberta in 2017 because a summer drought on P.E.I. hammered potato yields.

Potato growers will need to produce more in 2019 to alleviate the shortage, but the growing season is off to a rocky start on P.E.I.

Planting is about 10 days behind normal because of wet soil and cold weather, MacIsaac said.

Growers have made better progress in Western Canada. As of May 21, potato planting was 95-100 percent complete in Manitoba.

“Alberta is pretty good too,” MacIsaac said.

However, Manitoba needs substantially more potatoes in 2019 because Simplot is spending $460 million to double the size of its processing plant in Portage la Prairie.

The company will require an additional six million cwt. of potatoes, which represents 15,000 to 18,000 more acres.

As well, Cavendish Farms is building a $350 million processing plant in Lethbridge. That facility will need more potatoes from growers in southern Alberta.

“Our discussions over the winter with industry people, was it’s going to be a challenge to get enough acres, in Manitoba especially, not so much in Alberta,” MacIsaac said. “You need good land… and water rights available… but they’re hopeful they will get the acreage.”

MacIsaac said the Cavendish plant in Lethbridge is slated to open in August.

The Simplot plant in Portage will likely open in January.

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