P.E.I. potato shipments blocked from U.S.

The spuds may be big on the back of Bud’s rig, but they are not going to the U.S. if they’re from Prince Edward Island. Truckers long associated with the province’s famed potatoes — thanks to Stompin’ Tom Connors’ lyrics for Bud the Spud – are now parking or rerouting equipment because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has suspended shipments of the border-bound crops.

(Photo: istock)

The ban emerged this month after inspectors identified cases of potato wart in two monitored fields. While the fungus does not threaten human health, it does affect the appearance and marketability of potatoes.

It was first identified in the province in 2000, and since then the industry has adopted a series of measures such as trailer washing procedures and sprout inhibitors to keep potato fungus under control. “Over the past 20 years there has not been a single incidence of potato wart – in any market – attributable to Prince Edward Island potatoes. We have faith in our potatoes and so does everyone, even the minister of agriculture herself,” P.E.I.

Potato Board general manager Greg Donald said in a related release. But the export ban presents a particular challenge for trucking operations that serve the industry. “We rely heavily on potato exports off the island,” said Andy Keith, president and CEO of Seafood Express.

This time of year, the fleet would typically haul one to three loads of potatoes to the U.S. per day. The losses are further compounded because the same trucks are not available to backhaul U.S. freight into Ontario and Quebec. The province’s potato industry is worth more than £1.3 billion per year, and the U.S. market represents £120 million of that, the P.E.I.

Potato Board says. Fresh island potatoes are still being shipped to Canadian markets. “They don’t pay as well,” Keith admitted.

But there’s no choice. The trucks need to be repositioned to meet the needs of other customers. “It probably cut our output in half,” said Scott Annear, of the 31-truck Morley Annear fleet.

And he’s worried how the export ban will affect other trucking operations in the region. “This all spins off,” he said. “I’m going to be after somebody else’s market for loads now. So it does have a bearing on New Brunswick trucks, Nova Scotia trucks …

The market was so strong. The rates were doing pretty good up to last week. I’m scared to see what’s going to happen.”

A government-industry working group was scheduled to meet about the issue on Monday, and the Canada Food Inspection Agency plans technical discussions with the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service next week. “We must take a Team Canada approach in order to restore market access to the U.S. for P.E.I. fresh potatoes.

Until we can assure the United States of the safety of our potatoes, it is imperative we work together and seek all possible solutions to resolve this issue and limit impacts on our farmers,” said federal Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau. “The United States has made it very clear that if we restarted issuing export certificates right now, they would immediately sign a federal order that would have extremely damaging consequences for our farmers.” Annear continues to worry about the amount of business that will be lost.

When potato wart was first identified in 2000, most of the related crops were shredded with snowblowers, he said.

“If the farmers here lose a month’s worth of grading, where do they make the time back up?

Even if the market is there for potatoes, they can only do so much in a day.”