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Potato farmer Richard Gorrill (right) and his son Shane (left) at Richard's farm outside O'Leary, P.E.I., Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (Nathan Rochford)
Potato farmer Richard Gorrill (right) and his son Shane (left) at Richard's farm outside O'Leary, P.E.I., Tuesday, May 7, 2013. (Nathan Rochford)

Even in PEI, potato farming is on the decline Add to ...

For five generations, the Gorrills have been growing potatoes on Prince Edward Island, with father and son Richard and Shane holding the tiller now. Along with Richard’s brother, Wayne, they farm 900 acres near O’Leary, in the southwest of the island – and together represent a lucrative past and the uncertain future of an industry that is as much part of the island as its ruby-red soil.

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Once heavily invested in the fresh-potato business, they got out in the late 1990s, growing now only for processors. The price is negotiated before even one potato seed is planted. “Security, I guess,” says Richard, 62, about the reason for their decision. “We chose not to play the game of ups and downs.”

Lately, it’s been more about downs than ups. Prices are tumbling, with fresh, or table potatoes, fetching 40 per cent less than last year, according to the the PEI Potato Board. That has left Canadian farmers selling fresh potatoes for below the cost of production. And it’s not just one bad season – a string of them has meant some farmers are leaving their land altogether.

Although Idaho is being blamed in part – for flooding the market with potatoes last summer – there’s the longer-term trouble: consumer tastes are changing as time-stressed families opt for quicker meals. The lingering popularity of low-carb diets is giving potatoes a bad rap. And what would be a key source of growth – immigrant markets – hasn’t panned out, as potatoes have not traditionally been a staple food for many Southeast Asian households. Fresh potato consumption has tumbled about 48 per cent in the past 15 years, the PEI board says.

The board has already launched a series of “YouTuber” testimonial videos that aim to convince consumers of the vegetable’s virtues. “We’ve turned from a meat-and-potatoes nation to a sandwich one,” the board’s Greg Donald laments.

For Canada’s smallest province, potatoes aren’t just another commodity: Along with lobsters and Anne of Green Gables, the starchy tubers are part of the culture. The first recorded potato production dates back to 1771, when the colonial governor, in a report to England, described the year’s crop as a “phenomenal success.”

Today, PEI is home to a quarter of potato production in Canada, but abandoned farm buildings and “For Sale” signs dot the sides of the highway from Summerside to Charlottetown. Over the past five to seven years, industry officials estimate that 30 per cent of farmers have left the profession – disturbing, given that potato farming is worth more than $1-billion annually to PEI’s economy, and 12 per cent of the island’s population works in some way in the sector.

“Many people aren’t seeing a future in potato farming anymore,” says Gary Linkletter, a third-generation potato farmer whose Linkletter Farms has 1,500 acres near Summerside.

Lower prices are forcing him to adjust business strategy; he’ll lease new tractors this year instead of buying them, and postpone investments in new machinery until prices improve. In the long run, he hopes consumer appetite will return. “People have been hearing all these bad things about potatoes, but not the good things.”

The Charlottetown-based PEI board and other provincial boards are starting a marketing campaign, aiming to spur Canadians to eat more spuds. “Potatoes are misunderstood,” says Mr. Donald, adding that he wants consumers to view them as a (low-cal, gluten-free, potassium-rich, fibre-heavy) vegetable rather than an obesity-inducing carb. Besides, they’ve gotten cheaper: Prices are down 9.8 per cent from last year, Statistics Canada says – the biggest drop of any food item in the consumer price index.

McCain Foods, one of the world’s largest French-fry producers and one to which PEI farmers sell their potatoes, has been diversifying its potato options. In the frozen-potato section at Canadian grocery stores, it is seeing “good growth in the past few years” in new products using sweet potatoes and red-skin potatoes, says marketing director Paul Gallagher. “Lower-tier, less expensive products in the category have declined as consumers have shifted to … more premium potato products,” he says.

Conditions look brighter for farmers in the near term. A cold spring has delayed planting, which in turns makes it less likely yields will stay at record highs. That should alleviate the glut and support firmer prices, Mr. Donald predicts.

But more needs to be done, farmers say. “We as a fresh industry probably could have done and, should be, and are probably trying now, to do a better job of marketing and getting the story out,” says Randy Visser, who grows only fresh potatoes on about 700 acres on the eastern part of PEI, where the soil is lighter and sandier and dries more quickly than on the western part of the island. “I think for awhile there we might have seen a bit of stagnation and [we] accepted the status quo, and I think we lost some ground as far as our customers go.”

Like Mr. Visser, the Gorrills are hopeful about this season. It’s what comes after that concerns Richard Gorrill about the future of the industry. His son, Shane, is 36, and has two young sons. “They talk like they’re going to farm, but there’s 10 years, 20 years before you’ll know that,” Mr. Gorrill says. “That’s the ones I am concerned about … because when you grow up on a farm there’s a lot you learn, and if you lose that expertise how do you replace it?”

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