P.E.I. spud shortfall sparks imports

An eight percent decline in potato production and growing demand forced processing plants to buy potatoes from Alberta

There are many obscure and strange feats in the Guinness World Records, such as the largest collection of garden gnomes (2,010).

However, it’s unlikely that hauling potatoes, for distance, is mentioned anywhere in the book.

If it was, a record is probably being set in Canada right now because french fry plants on Prince Edward Island are shipping in potatoes from Alberta.

The distance from Lethbridge to Summerside, P.E.I., is 4,575 km.

“They are being shipped by rail and off loaded in Moncton,” said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada.

“The freight is almost worth more than the potatoes.”

Processing plants in P.E.I. are paying the freight because the island is short of potatoes. The western half of the province didn’t get enough rain during the growing season, and the arid conditions cut into yield.

This year P.E.I. produced 23.66 million hundredweight of potatoes, down eight percent, or two million cwt., from 2016.

Therefore, processing companies in the province “will have to import a lot of potatoes to keep the plants going,” MacIsaac said.

The processors are now buying potatoes from Alberta, but until the next harvest they will likely buy spuds from Manitoba, Maine, New Brunswick and North Dakota.

They are buying potatoes wherever possible because overall supplies are tight in Canada and the United States.

“There are very few open potatoes available this year,” MacIsaac said, adding it’s unusual for P.E.I. to haul in potatoes from far away.

“It happened back in 2001 when P.E.I. had a severe drought. Potatoes were shipped from as far as Saskatchewan.”

P.E.I. was the only province where potato production slumped this year.

Statistics Canada said in a late November report that Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick produced more spuds in 2017 than in the previous year. Manitoba was essentially unchanged, despite fewer acres this year.

Potato production was up 0.4 percent across Canada, and yields set a new national record of 309.4 cwt. per acre.

Yields were particularly strong on the Prairies. Growers in Manitoba and Alberta set new records for average yields, with 354 cwt. per acre and 391 cwt. per acre, respectively.

Canadian production was up slightly, but U.S. potato production took a hit in 2017.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its estimates in November, noting that production dropped two percent from 2016.

The harvested area and yields were both down one percent.

Potato supplies in North America may be down, but demand is up for french fries and frozen potato products. Exports to Asia and other regions continue to expand with Japan leading the way, MacIsaac said.

“There’s barely enough (production) capacity in Canada, and in the U.S. for that matter, to produce enough french fries for what they can sell into the marketplace, particularly to export,” he said.

“That’s why we’re seeing plant expansion in Canada and the U.S. They are at capacity and they have the sales, so they need to ramp up.”

In September, Cavendish Farms, one of the major processors, broke ground on a $360 million plant in Lethbridge.

“That’s driven certainly by the exchange factor,” MacIsaac said

McCain Foods at Coaldale, Alta., is also expanding.

It’s very favourable to run plants and expand plants in Canada right now … (and) companies are really attracted to Alberta with the quality (of potatoes) they got they last couple of years.”

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