Potato shortage looms due to 'harvest from hell' after unseasonable weather
Published Saturday, December 1, 2018 10:20AM EST Last Updated Sunday, December 2, 2018 3:24PM EST
Farmers across Canada left thousands of acres of potato crops unharvested after a slew of bad weather created challenging conditions, setting the stage for a possible shortage of the starchy dinner table staple.
"It's unprecedented. Never, never before have I seen this in my time," said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada (UPGC), an organization that provides industry information to help farmers make production and marketing decisions. He's been with the organization for seven years and, before that, grew potatoes in Prince Edward Island, where he still lives.
In typical years, one area of the country may suffer from a bad harvest, while others do OK, he said, but this year, the problems span almost all the way across the country.
Farmers abandoned about 16,000 acres of potato crop, according to the group's most recent estimate, which did not include figures for Saskatchewan, Ontario or Nova Scotia, but indicated they also suffered some losses. B.C. is the only province that did not mention abandoned crops in UPGC's report.
The group expects to have more precise figures soon, MacIsaac said, but is working with the best information it has now.
P.E.I., the country's largest potato producer, suffered the most.
Farmers left about 6,800 acres unharvested. In a typical year, some 500 to 1,000 acres may be abandoned, said Greg Donald, general manager of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, which represents the province's nearly 170 growers.
The weather this year in the province was relentless.
First came a lacklustre growing season, with a late spring and hot, dry summer, said Donald, which was followed by an early frost in September that killed any future growth potential.
Then came copious amounts of rain, which delayed the end of harvest beyond the usual Halloween target date, and farmers pushed into November.
In early November, it rained one day and the ground froze solid the next, he said, meaning farmers could no longer dig for potatoes.
"Many have described it as the harvest from hell," he said.
Unusual weather caused other provinces to suffer similar setbacks.
In Manitoba, some 5,200 acres remain unharvested, according to UPGC. While the province's prospects for a good yield were strong going into harvest, rainfall followed by a cold spell resulted in thousands of abandoned acres, said MacIsaac.
Most farmers will have some type of insurance to cover a portion of their costs associated with the lost income, but it won't cover the profit they would have made, he said.
The thousands of unharvested acres could mean a shortage of processing potatoes (those used to make products like french fries and hash browns) and table potatoes (those sold whole in grocery stores), both men said.
"It's going to be a real, you know, challenge," said Donald, adding there's not going to be enough local supply for the markets the province typically serves.
Compounding the problem is a similar situation in parts of the U.S., as well as parts of Europe where a dry season hurt yields, making for a more global shortfall.
While some growing areas in North America may have a shortage, others will have a surplus that can balance that out, said Terence Hochstein, executive director of the Potato Growers of Alberta.
His province abandoned about 1,000 acres, he said, which is more than he'd like, but pretty typical. It was able to send some potatoes to P.E.I. and Alberta to help, he said.
"Overall, I think the crop is going to be tight, but I think the industry will be alright."
Still, consumers could ultimately see price hikes on potato products due to basic supply and demand principles.
When there's less of a product, it's going to be reflected in the price, Donald said, adding even the potatoes that have been harvested are not quite safe yet.
Potatoes are mostly water and harvesting them in wet conditions adds the risk of bringing extra moisture into storage, making them more difficult to dry and keep, he said.
"So that's still a big concern as well."