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Potato surplus and halted processing impacts new Alberta crops

Potato surplus: Alberta growers take major hit in spring planting
Potato Growers of Alberta officials say the surplus of potatoes brought on by COVID-19 is dishing out more hits to farmers this spring, as many are now making cuts to new crops. Emily Olsen reports.

In a province that boasts one of the largest potato production regions in Canada, the surplus of potatoes waiting in storage due to COVID-19 is a major issue.

Officials say that surplus is now impacting future crops.

READ MORE: Canada’s food industry leaders say $252M aid falls short of need amid COVID-19

“Our growers will be done planting by the end of this week,” Potato Growers of Alberta Executive Director Terence Hochstein said. 

“They’ve got about a 25 per cent cutback on their 2020 acres, so that is going to help somewhat.

“But there’s still going to be about 100,000 tonnes in Alberta that have no home.”

Potatoes that remain in storage past September will have to be thrown out completely.

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“It’s a huge hit, not only for our process growers but for the seed growers as well,” Hochstein said. “So that seed was already spoken for earlier on in the winter, and right now it’s been turned back or never picked up.”

COVID-19 pandemic: Canadian meat and potato industry in crisis
COVID-19 pandemic: Canadian meat and potato industry in crisis

The Potato Growers of Alberta projects the loss to producers at around $26 million, with another $5 to $6 million loss to seed growers alone.

The surplus is due to a number of factors, including closed restaurants and slowed processing. 

READ MORE: Canadian farmers mull euthanasia for animals as coronavirus slows processing

Dylan Toth of Dylan’s Piggyback Poutinerie says although their potatoes are sourced fresh by a smaller local supplier, everyone is feeling the pinch.

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“They were talking to me, when they dropped the potatoes off this morning, about, ‘Well, we’ve got all these potatoes ready to go,’ because some restaurants buy different sizes and varietals,” Toth said.

“They’re going to be stuck holding onto that because there’s just nobody there to buy it.”

With dining rooms closed, another west Lethbridge restaurant quoted its potato product sales at less than half of the typical 1,000 pounds it used to go through in a week.

“We’ve constantly said Canada has got a safe food supply chain,” Hochstein said. “We do. But when a producer is stuck with raw product because of the situation, it will directly affect consumers in the long run.”

Concerns from potato producers over COVID-19 impact
Concerns from potato producers over COVID-19 impact

Officials say it shows how crucial processing plants are to the food supply chain and to farmers. 

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Hochstein says the crisis is already affecting many producers on a personal level.

“It will be a concern to their bottom line, it will affect their operations, it’ll affect their families. It’s a very stressful time,” Hochstein said.

READ MORE: Canada’s meat-and-potato problem: Coronavirus pandemic hits the food supply chain

And with the backlog of potatoes unable to be processed in time, Hochstein says it won’t be a quick fix, even when the economy re-opens.

“That’s just not going to go away overnight,” he said. “This is going to take a year to work through.”