Nearly 200M pounds of Canadian french fry potatoes stuck in storage
TORONTO -- With many restaurants closed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Canadian farmers have been forced to freeze nearly 200 million pounds of potatoes destined to become french fries because there is no one to buy them.
That’s according to Kevin MacIsaac, the general manager of the United Potato Growers of Canada, who says his organization has reached out to the provinces and estimates that between 1.5 and 200 million pounds of excess raw potatoes have been put into storage as a result of the health emergency.
“It is a fairly large concern,” he told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview from Souris, P.E.I. on Tuesday. “Six months ago, we never thought this would happen. We were having a pretty good year in terms of pricing, in terms of demand.”
While sales of potato chips and fresh potatoes that are sold in grocery stores have actually seen an increase in sales as Canadians spend more time preparing food at home, MacIsaac said the problem lies with all of the potatoes grown specifically for french fries.
Roughly three-quarters of potatoes in Canada are eaten in restaurants, which MacIsaac said are typically quick-service establishments, such as McDonald’s. And even though many drive-thrus remain open, he said they’re not able to sell the same volume of food they would be able to if customers were allowed to dine in.
“We really are dependent on these restaurants that are closed right now,” he said. “We need to be able to go out and buy them again.”
To add to their woes, potato producers have been struggling to find enough freezer space to store their excess crops.
“The freezer storage in the factories are pretty well full. There’s not a lot of room for those factories to run longer,” MacIsaac said.
If there is not enough freezer space, MacIsaac said producers will try to delay processing the potatoes into french fries for as long as they can or divert them as many as they can into fresh potatoes for grocery stores.
To avoid food waste, growers donate to food banks in most provinces, but MacIsaac said the logistics of packaging and transporting large volumes of potatoes can be challenging in these already difficult times.
The scramble to preserve potatoes, which can last up to a year if they’re processed and frozen properly, weighs heavily on Stan Wiebe, a potato farmer in Manitoba.
“Potatoes are a fragile commodity. You can’t store potatoes indefinitely,” he told CTV News Winnipeg on Friday.
Wiebe’s family has been forced to suspend operations on their farm near Macgregor, Man. because he estimates that 70 per cent of the market has disappeared.
The potato problem is disheartening, too, for Alex Docherty, a potato farmer in P.E.I.
“Nothing takes the wind out of you any quicker than seeing good food going to waste," he told CTV News earlier this month.
MacIsaac said the surplus of potatoes will have a ripple effect on the growers who are already out in the fields planting crops for the coming year.
“They’ve been notified by their customers or their manufacturers that those same companies do not need as many potatoes for the coming year because their volume has been cut back,” he explained. “So they’re left in the lull. They’re not sure what to do with those additional acres they had planned on planting.”
As a result of the crisis, the Canadian Potato Council, with the support of MacIsaac’s organization, reached out to Agriculture and Agri-food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau’s office last week to request federal intervention to protect the industry.
MacIsaac said they’re still waiting to hear back from the minister’s office, but he’s hopeful that financial support is on the way.
“I know it’s busy days at the federal government so we hope that the day will come,” he said.
With files from CTV News Winnipeg and CTVNews.ca’s Alexandra Mae Jones