‘Without government action now, it will devastate a multi-billion industry and all of the jobs that depend on it’
Farmers group Potato New Brunswick is calling for immediate action from the federal and provincial governments, saying that delays in rolling out a COVID-19-related support program for Canadian agriculture “may spell doom for potato farmers”.
The group noted that early last month, the federal government announced a $50-million Surplus Food Purchase Program intended to alleviate the impact of COVID-19 on farmers, but there has been no action from the government since the announcement while millions of pounds of potatoes are sitting in storage and starting to rot.
"We need to finally settle with the province and federal government so that we can dispose of these potatoes now," said Matt Hemphill, executive director of Potatoes New Brunswick. "That could mean turning them to cattle feed or creating more freezer capacity to get them processed into French fries or donating to food banks. But the reality is we need help and support to do that, and the government has yet to make any tangible move in the right direction."
The closure of restaurants and bars across the country has meant a drastic drop in the number of people ordering plates of French fries, and this resulted in the equivalent of 700 transport truckloads of potatoes in surplus in New Brunswick alone, according to the group.
Canadian potato farmers have also grown millions of pounds of seed potatoes for this year that have gone unused, as dropping demand for potatoes means fewer acres were planted. Seed potatoes take years to cultivate but are now starting to sprout in storages which makes them unusable, the group continued.
"The government needs to remember we are dealing with a perishable crop. The longer they delay, the greater the risk of spoilage and the increased chance we have to deal with potato blight in addition to the surplus,” said Richard Strang, CEO of Strang's Produce in Malden, N.B. "Without government action now, it will devastate a multi-billion industry and all of the jobs — on the farm, in the processing plants and in grocery stores and restaurants — that depend on it.”
Potatoes are one of Canada's leading agricultural commodities, accounting for a third of all vegetable farm cash receipts in the country, Potatoes New Brunswick said. Canada is also the world's second-largest exporter of French fries (after the Netherlands) and fifth-largest seed potato exporter — before the COVID-19 crisis hit, an estimated 70% of all potatoes grown in Canada for processing into frozen foods are shipped to other countries.
Meanwhile, the federal government and the governments of New Brunswick, Manitoba and Nova Scotia have agreed to increase the 2020 AgriStability interim benefit payment percentage from 50 to 75 per cent for producers. The program supports producers experiencing a 70 per cent decline in farm income.
The Nova Scotia government also said they are providing a 10 per cent discount on producers’ share of AgriInsurance premiums, saving farmers from making these payments during difficult times. AgriInsurance is an insurance against natural hazards to reduce the financial impact of production losses.
The assistance includes a new COVID-19 Response and Mitigation Program, funded under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, that helps mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The program will help food producers with the costs of meeting extra health requirements due to COVID-19, help producers get their crops to market, fund projects aimed at maintaining competitiveness, productivity, profitability and support abattoir efficiency and development.
“This support package will help farmers manage risks that are currently threatening the viability of their farm operations and our food supply system,” said Keith Colwell, minister of agriculture. “We need a strong agriculture sector and by taking these steps, we are helping our farm families improve their competitiveness, productivity and profitability at a time of significant change.”
AgriStability is delivered in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Yukon by the federal government. The deadline to enrol for the 2020 program year is July 3, 2020.