Thousands in Puerto Rico join lobby for return of P.E.I. potatoes

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Thousands of Puerto Ricans have joined the lobbying efforts to get P.E.I. potatoes back into the U.S. territory.

The weekly shipments ended abruptly when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency banned the export of potatoes from P.E.I. on Nov. 21 in response to American concerns around the discovery of potato wart in two Island fields. 

Puerto Ricans are being encouraged to send emails to Jenniffer González Colón, the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico in Washington, as well as to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. 

The social media campaign is called Papas para Puerto Rico, or Potatoes for Puerto Rico, and it focuses on the price of potatoes going up because of the export ban. 

Puerto Ricans are being encouraged to send emails to Jenniffer González, the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, seen here in early December meeting with a Canadian delegation. (Jenniffer González/Twitter)

“The people of Puerto Rico are heavily reliant on potatoes for their diet,” said Kendra Mills, marketing director of the P.E.I. Potato Board in Charlottetown, which helped develop the campaign.

“But also they are very food insecure and the population can use upwards of 50 per cent of food stamps at any one time. So we know that any kind of market disruption is very impactful to the citizens of Puerto Rico.”

We know this is definitely impacting the citizens of Puerto Rico. ​—Kendra Mills

 

Mills said 80 to 85 per cent of the potatoes sold in Puerto Rico usually come from Prince Edward Island. 

“We’re looking to educate them so that they know why the price of a very important staple in their diet is increasing,” Mills said.

“We want them to understand, to be able to use their voice to help us in our fight to get the border open. We know this is definitely impacting the citizens of Puerto Rico.”

Major disruption

Mills said potato growers on P.E.I. are hearing from their customers in Puerto Rico, many of whom they have been working with for decades.

“The price is going up. The supply is very tight,” Mills said.

“We have importers and retailers calling from the United States and Puerto Rico, calling our dealers every other day, looking for an update to the border situation because of the major disruption that’s been created down there.” 

In 2020, sales to Puerto Rico accounted for about 25 per cent of P.E.I.’s sales to the United States. (Joe Colon Studio)

Mills said the social media campaign has been attracting attention, with more than 75, 000 views of the short video, and almost 3,000 emails sent to Congresswoman González and Trudeau.

Scarcity of potatoes

Brenda Massenet, president of Empacadora Hill Brothers in Puerto Rico, said her company is feeling the effect of the border closure.

She said Hill Brothers has been working with P.E.I. growers for more than 30 years, and most of their potatoes would usually come from P.E.I. 

“Since mid-December we have had to find other ways of getting potatoes here at a reasonable price and with quality, and it has been quite a challenge,” Massanet said. 

“Right now there’s a scarcity of potatoes in the island, and we are one of those that are still struggling to get enough potatoes to supply our clients.” 

Brenda Massanet is president of Empacadora Hill Brothers in Puerto Rico. (Submitted by Brenda Massanet )

Massanet said Puerto Ricans are struggling with price increases throughout the economy, in part because of the damage from Hurricane Maria in 2017, and then the pandemic.

It’s only going to get worse if this is not fixed soon.— Brenda Massanet

She said the price of potatoes is already moving up for her as a supplier, and that will make its way through the supermarket, to the public.

“In our case, we calculate about an 18 per cent increase in the ones that we are bringing in from other parts of Canada right now, so it’s substantial,” Massanet said. 

“It’s going to be tough for the consumer at the end of the day.”

Massanet says Hill Brothers has had to look for other sources of potatoes because of the export ban to the U.S. (Rodrigo Acosta Fotografia)

Logistical challenges

Massanet said she’s trying to be optimistic, but sees challenging times ahead.

“It’s only going to get worse if this is not fixed soon. We have contacted our representative in the Congress in the U.S. trying for her to put a word in for us,” Massanet said. 

“The situation in Puerto Rico is a little bit different than in the States. You can’t bring potatoes here by by rail. It’s hard to do the logistics from the States, especially if it is not something that we do all the time.”

Tropical Shipping has a weekly sailing from the port of Halifax to Puerto Rico. This is the Canadian vessel arriving at the port of San Juan. (Submitted by Tropical Shipping)

Massanet said she grew up in the family business and still remembers the first time Canadians from P.E.I. came to visit them in Puerto Rico — so what is happening is also personal. 

“I know they’re struggling. I have received several calls personally, and my guys in the purchasing department have, from several of the owners and suppliers, and they’re very concerned and I feel for them,” Massanet said.  

Massanet said she will be spreading the word about the social media campaign, and hopes to encourage more Puerto Ricans to send emails to Washington and Ottawa. 



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