Seed potato growers face COVID-19 hit

In the 2018-19 crop year, Canada exported about $38 million worth of seed potatoes. Almost all of the seed potatoes went to the United States, with a tiny share going to Uruguay and other nations, Statistics Canada says.

Those exports are now in jeopardy because COVID-19 has drastically cut into consumption of french fries.

Potato growers across North America will plant fewer acres of spuds this spring, which means a severe reduction in sales for seed potato growers.

“One thing we’re not talking about is the… seed growers,” said Terence Hochstein, Potato Growers of Alberta executive director. “They have no place else to go with that seed this spring…. Our seed growers are going to take the brunt of this catastrophe.”

Alberta is the major producer of seed potatoes in Canada. The province has more than 50 seed potato growers, many near Edmonton and in central Alberta.

“Long summer days, cool nights and a large, available land base in isolated geographic areas have resulted in Alberta seed that is characterized by increased vigour, high quality, high yields, lower disease and pest problems,” Potato Growers of Alberta says on its website.

“Fifty percent of the seed potatoes grown on the 10,000 seed potato acres in Alberta are exported.”

Those exports and sales within Canada are at risk because potato acres will drop across North America in 2020. Not only are thousands of restaurants closed, but millions of Canadians and Americans have lost their jobs. Even if restaurants re-open this summer to sit-down customers, it could take months before french fry demand returns to previous levels.

As a result, frozen potato processors, such as McCain Foods and Cavendish Farms, will need fewer potatoes in 2020, possibly 25 percent less than expected.

That will hurt farmers who grow spuds for processing, but it will be especially damaging to seed potato growers. They have invested years and huge dollars in their 2020 crop.

“(They) keep reproducing that seed, over those two, three or five years, with the hopes of selling it in spring,” Hochstein said.

Potato seed growers in Canada will sell a portion of their crop this spring, but the rest could go to waste.

“They literally have millions of dollars invested,” Hochstein said. “We have all these seed growers that have product where there is absolutely zero market for (it).”

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