Some potato growers in Manitoba have reached a breaking point and not just because of COVID-19.
Manitoba’s potato industry has been suffering for more than 18 months. There was a difficult harvest in 2018, a much worse harvest in 2019, potatoes rotting in storage this winter and production cuts this spring.
The personal stress has been building and a number of producers are questioning why they continue to grow potatoes.
“We went into this winter with a shaky foundation of some bad experiences with harvest and difficult storing (conditions),” said Stan Wiebe, a potato grower who farms by MacGregor, Man. “And now there’s going to be another percentage that won’t get sold… because of the marketing conditions. This is affecting farmers not only financially but psychologically, after so many hard-hitting events, back to back. There’s a very real possibility that this might be a tipping point for some people.”
Potato acres in Manitoba and across North America will drop this spring because of shuttered restaurants, a sharp decline in french fry consumption and the economic fallout from COVID-19. Kids, teens and adults are still eating french fries, but the pandemic restrictions have dramatically cut into consumption.
“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-thrus to (sell) french fries,” said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada.
The issue, though, is bigger than restaurant closures. Millions of North Americans are out of work and it will take months, or years, before economic activity returns to normal. Companies that manufacture french fries, hash browns and other frozen potato products have scaled back their production contracts for 2020.
In Manitoba, the cutback is about 15-17 percent.
“We grow with McCain’s…. We’re going to be reduced 16.5 percent in our volume, from what we contracted a year ago,” said Wiebe, who farms 9,000 acres with his brother Don.
They grow corn, canola, wheat, soybeans and spuds. In a normal year, they grow about 1,100 – 1,200 acres of process potatoes.
They also employ 14 full-time employees.
“All who live in the area and depend on the (farm) for their livelihood,” Wiebe said.
A reduction of 15 to 17 percent doesn’t sound like a lot, but potatoes are a high-value crop.
Last fall, Manitoba growers were unable to harvest 22 percent of process potatoes because of incessant rains, a 25-50 centimetre snowfall in early October and frost.
Collectively, potato farm revenues in Manitoba dropped by more than $50 million.
“Roughly $220-$230 million (from) the field value (of processing potatoes in Manitoba),” Wiebe said. “Take 22 percent off of that. That’s money that will not be re-invested into the industry. It’s gone.”
Manitoba potato growers also lost revenues in 2018. About eight percent of the provincial crop was never harvested, thanks to a cold and wet fall.
“We thought that was going to be the worst we would ever experience…. Then 2019 (hit),” Wiebe said.
Weak demand is also hitting the companies that make french fries.
J.R. Simplot spent $450 million to double the size of its french fry plant in Portage la Prairie, Man. The facility opened in January and potato production in Manitoba should be expanding, to service the new plant.
The province exports more than $400 million worth of french fries and frozen potato products annually and the industry employs thousands of Manitobans.
“If the grower base would lose confidence (in potatoes) it would be devastating for the processors and very bad news for the economy of Manitoba,” said Wiebe, who plans to keep growing spuds because it’s important for his farm and his employees.
Other provinces are taking action to assist potato growers.
Prince Edward Island will provide $4.7 million to address the Island’s potato surplus, the CBC reported. The province will help producers and processors with the cost of shipping and storing potatoes.
“This will help to ensure no product is lost so that farmers are in good position for the 2020 growing season,” said Bloyce Thompson, P.E.I. agriculture minister. “It will help resolve the substantial market issues to ensure these potatoes will now be a source of safe, quality food for our food security.”
Finding a solution for Manitoba potato growers is not simple. Local food banks can only handle so many potatoes and french fries. Shipping product to the other side of the world isn’t financially viable.
Governments have provided support to businesses and individuals during the COVID-19 crisis, Wiebe said. But the potato industry also needs an injection of support.
“Money is very important but we’ve been psychologically knocked back,” he said.
“I don’t totally know what can be done. (But) if nothing is done I know what will happen… anything that doesn’t get delivered to a factory will be dumped on a field. (It) will be lost and wasted.”