Pandemic causes french fry demand to collapse

Tens of thousands of restaurants are closed in North America, which means Canadians and Americans are eating fewer french fries than usual.

The downturn in consumption has had an immediate impact on french fry processors in Canada and could alter how many potatoes are seeded in 2020.

“It doesn’t take a great scientist to figure it out. Once the sit-down portions of restaurants closed… then all you have left is drive-throughs to (sell) french fries,” said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada.

As a result, companies that turn potatoes into french fries, hashbrowns and frozen potato wedges are slowing down or stopping production because they lack sufficient space to store the processed potatoes.

“The simplicity is that there’s no freezer space left because sales have declined that much,” MacIsaac said from his home office near Charlottetown.

Cavendish Farms, which operates a french fry plant on the Island, instructed P.E.I. growers to sell potatoes to other markets because the company is cutting production.

“While food remains an essential item for everyone, we have seen a significant drop in the demand for french fries as a result of coronavirus (COVID-19) and the closure of restaurants,” Mary Keith, spokesperson at Cavendish Farms, told the P.E.I. Potato Board.

“This has meant curtailments of production at Cavendish Farms in New Annan.”

In Western Canada, potato processors in Alberta and Manitoba were short on potatoes this winter because of horrible harvest conditions in 2019. Thousands of tonnes of potatoes are still in the ground, because of an extremely wet and cold fall.

“(The) poor harvest conditions, particularly in Western Canada, have resulted in 20,296 acres being abandoned in farmers’ fields,” the United Potato Growers of Canada said in December.

Processors like J.R. Simplot in Portage la Prairie, Man., and Cavendish Farms in Lethbridge have been importing potatoes from the United States to compensate for the shortfall. Manitoba was importing about eight to 10 truckloads of potatoes per day, mostly from Idaho, so that processing plants in Portage and Carberry, Man., could operate close to full capacity.

Now that french fry production has slowed, the companies no longer need the U.S. potatoes.

“Importation is going to come to a stop now,” MacIsaac said.

It’s nearly impossible to say when french fry demand will return to normal because it’s difficult to predict when restaurants will re-open and consumers will have the disposable income to dine out.

Potato processors and growers across Canada will have to factor COVID-19 into production contracts for 2020, as soft demand for french fries could persist into the summer, fall and beyond.

Last year Canadian farmers seeded 361,554 acres of potatoes, up 3.8 percent from 2018.

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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