A ‘spudpocalypse’ could threaten Mass. french fries and hash browns
But is it? It’s complicated.
The story begins on scenic Prince Edward Island, a Canadian province known for its deep red soil and — you guessed it — potatoes. There, spuds anchor the economy, raking in $1.3 billion each year.
Greg Donald, general manager of the Island’s potato board, said PEI farmers ship between 250 million and 300 million pounds of tubers to America annually, a quarter of which land in the potato-hungry Bay State. Massachusetts residents consume an average of 75 million pounds of PEI spuds each year, second only to Puerto Rico.
But a disease called potato wart has wrought havoc. The soil-borne, quarantine pest produces unsightly spores and cauliflower-like appendages on the vegetable, though it poses no threat to humans. It can, however, rapidly destroy potato crops and decimate agricultural economies.
“It’s one of the worst diseases you can get in this commodity,” said Kam Quarles, the CEO of the US National Potato Council.
In November, the Canadian government bowed to pressure from US officials and declared that Prince Edward Island “is a place infested with potato wart,” after two fields presented with the disease. The country suspended PEI potato exports to the US indefinitely.
Now, nearly everyone is losing out.
Massachusetts may face a drop in its potato supply as a result. Greg Maheris, a potato distributor at J Maheris Co. in Chelsea, told the Boston Herald that his spud supply has fallen by 30 percent. Normally, Maheris sees more than 70,000 pounds of potatoes from the island.
Price increases could follow, the PEI Potato Board said in its social media campaign, which encourages Massachusetts residents to send emails to US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack urging him to allow shipments to resume. New England consumers already are grappling with broader grocery store shortages and inflation-fueled cost increases.
Between December 2020 and 2021, the sticker price of potatoes rose by 4.8 percent, according to the Consumer Price Index.
Approximately 30 percent of Prince Edward Island potatoes go fresh to market and retail. Sixty percent are destined for processing, in part to ease a french fry shortage amid the COVID-era strain on the international potato supply. And 10 percent are grown to seed additional spuds.
Still, only 5 percent of tubers in the US come from Canada. And Western Massachusetts is home to a few potato farms of its own.
“I don’t think that there’ll be major supply constraints in the future,” Quarles said. Domestic producers “will fill the gaps.”
The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture Resources referred the Globe to the US Department of Agriculture, saying the state “does not have regulatory authority” over federal potato policy. The USDA and Vilsack have called the suspension “a necessary plant health measure.”
But the particulars, and the motivation behind the move, are up for debate.
US officials and growers say that any short-term economic harm from the pause is outweighed by threats to American potato farms. Warts spread like lightning, blackening spuds and potentially causing irreparable damage for decades. This could threaten farms on the Eastern seaboard that use PEI seed potatoes to grow their own.
Quarles said Canada has seen an uptick in disease detection incidents in the past 18 months. “We don’t want that happening here,” he added.
But Canadian growers disagree. The PEI Potato Board alleged that the National Potato Council is misinterpreting data about the spread of warts.
Donald, its general manager, said PEI employs quarantine guidelines that have proven successful since the province first endured wart outbreaks two decades ago. The US banned PEI potatoes before, in October 2000, after potato wart was detected on 72 tubers on a small plot.
“We have thousands and thousands of fields, and we’re being reprimanded for two tiny patches that were already under surveillance,” Donald added. “It breaks my heart.”
In December, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said a national survey did not find potato wart in fields not already under surveillance. The risk of spread was “negligible,” the survey read. (The agency did not immediately respond to a list of e-mailed questions.)
Prince Edward Island grower John Visser suggested the pause on spud imports could be a play to strengthen the US potato market, especially around Massachusetts.
“It’s not a problem caused by the weather or by the farmers. It’s a problem created partly by the government,” he said. “And New England consumers are paying more for potatoes now.”
In the meantime, Canadian farmers are suffering. A plentiful yield in 2021 promised to replenish losses from the past three years. But Visser will make little money on the spuds from his 1,100-acre property, even though the government pays farmers 8.5 cents per pound to destroy the potatoes.
As early as next week, island growers will begin dicing up their tuber harvests — now slowly rotting in storage — with snowblowers, leaving the remnants to wither away in the wintery elements.
The worst part? The emotional toll and “destroying good food,” Visser said.
Prince Edward Island farmers are now anxiously awaiting a decision from officials this week that would resume table stock potato shipments to Puerto Rico. But the situation in Massachusetts remains unchanged.
Marie-Claude Bibeau, the Canadian minister of agriculture, hopes PEI spuds will be back on the American mainland within weeks.
“The science is there,” she said. “We are very hopeful that we will see the market reopening through the United States for table stock potatoes soon.”