Farmers ‘pleased’ P.E.I. potatoes heading to Puerto Rico once again


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Wednesday marks a step forward for some P.E.I. potato farmers as they can once again start shipping potatoes to Puerto Rico. 

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack made the announcement in a news release Tuesday.

“After considering Puerto Rico’s low risk for potato wart due to climate conditions, as well as the lack of a commercial potato production industry on the island, we are confident that with appropriate mitigations in place this trade can resume safely, and the U.S. potato industry will remain protected,” Vilsack said in the release.

On Nov. 21, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency suspended the export of fresh P.E.I. potatoes to the United States and its territory of Puerto Rico following the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields. Wart is a fungus that disfigures potatoes so that they are unmarketable and reduces yields, but poses no health risk to humans.

At the time, CFIA officials said they were acting so that American officials didn’t impose a unilateral ban that would be harder to get lifted.

Ray Keenan says the job of getting stickers put on individual bags of potatoes will be ‘huge.’ (Brian Higgins/CBC)

That decision brought to a sudden halt to exports that are usually worth about $120 million per year to the P.E.I. economy.

For growers, there’s cautious optimism about the Puerto Rico announcement.

“We are quite pleased at the starting point, this is more than we had a day ago,” said Ray Keenan with Rollo Bay Holdings in Souris on the eastern tip of the Island. 

But the move also means a lot of work to come.

A huge job 

Growers will be responsible for labelling their potatoes before shipping — and each bag must be labelled as bound for Puerto Rico and also marked as for consumption only, not for planting.

“Every one one of those tropical containers you see going down the road, there can be 18,000 three-pound bags or 12,000 five-pound bags, and you can just imagine the daunting experience of getting stickers on all those bags,” Keenan said, adding that it would take months to get new packaging made.

“It will be easier to get them printed than to get them stuck on. It’s a huge job.”

Meeting was a turning point

Keenan said the ball started rolling toward Tuesday’s announcement when Canadian officials met with their American counterparts. On Jan. 27, federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and P.E.I. MP Lawrence MacAulay met with Vilsack and his officials in Washington, D.C., to try to get the market reopened. 

Canadian Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and P.E.I. MP Lawrence MacAulay met with U.S. officials about the potato ban on January 27. (CBC)

The U.S. has not put a timeline on the resumption of shipments to the mainland, but Bibeau said she is optimistic that it could reopen in the next couple of weeks.

“We are going to count on Minister Bibeau and Minister MacAulay to keep following the timeline that they had and keep putting pressure on the U.S.A. to allow our safe potatoes — our good, safe potatoes — to go south,” said John Visser, chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board. 

Visser said he was waiting for more details on requirements for this most recent announcement from the CFIA later Wednesday.

Bibeau said she spoke with Vilsack Tuesday afternoon and he said the U.S. needs a few more weeks to continue risk analysis.

John Visser, chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board, says he was waiting for more details on requirements for this most recent announcement from the CFIA later Wednesday. (CBC)

“They also wanted to confirm these potatoes come from non-regulated land, which means they come from land that is not known to ever have had potato wart,” said Bibeau. 

“It’s very good news for today.”

More challenges ahead

Meanwhile, even with the announcement, surplus potatoes on the Island remain. 

“There are potatoes destined for the snow blowers here on P.E.I. already,” Keenan said. “The longer it takes to get the border open, the more we pile up the supply of potatoes.” 

“The hard part about this is that the American consumer needs these potatoes. There are chain stores on the eastern seaboard that have been short of potatoes these last two, three weeks.”

He said P.E.I. is a huge part of that supply chain.

While Wednesday’s move is a step forward, and farmers are optimistic, there are still challenges ahead. 

“Lost sales are lost sales and you can’t get them back,” Visser said. “Shipments to the States have to be figured out, and the seed has to get figured out yet. That’s the next challenge.”

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