On Prince Edward Island, potatoes are a big deal.
They are the pillar of the Island’s agricultural industry and account for up to $400-million a year in exports. They represent approximately 22 per cent of the country’s production in an average year. Folk singer Stompin’ Tom Connors even wrote a song about one.
This year, though, Islanders might find themselves buried under a mountain of potatoes. The COVID-19 pandemic has decreased demand for potatoes from dine-in restaurants and fast-food chains around the world, threatening to leave roughly 100 million pounds of last year’s crop without a market.
Cavendish Farms, PEI’s biggest potato processing facility, employs more Islanders than any private company in the province. It has already told farmers it will purchase roughly 20 per cent fewer potatoes from them this year, which may leave farmers with even more excess.
That has left farmers and the PEI Potato Board looking for solutions. The board’s marketing specialist Mark Phillips is encouraging Islanders to get creative when they cook.
“Our regular mandate is to get Islanders to consume potatoes,” Mr. Phillips said, “and that’s especially true this year.” The board has been promoting recipes for muffins, breads and even chocolate cake that use potato-based yeast and flour.
Pieter Ijsselstein, an entrepreneur from Hope River, PEI, makes potato-based skin care products and sells them around the world under the banner of Island Potato Soap. Mr. Ijsselstein extracts juice from potatoes, mixes it with oil and sodium hydroxide, and then infuses the mixture with essential oils to create various scents.
“Our unscented soaps don’t even smell like potatoes,” he said. “Well, maybe a little.”
Ben Rutgers has taken the more traditional approach to depleting the potato stockpile. The hospital administrative support worker called his 82-year-old grandmother at the end of April and asked her for the recipes she collected when growing up on PEI. In the month of May, he has had potatoes for every meal.
“We did potato salad on Monday, we did the mushroom scallop potatoes on Tuesday, and we have fish cakes tonight,” Mr. Rutgers said. “Eating potatoes right now is our civic duty, really.”
But Islanders alone can hardly eat 100 million pounds of fresh and processed potatoes, whether or not the demand for “COVID chips” keeps increasing. The PEI Potato Board knows that, so they are distributing some to food banks at home and in other Atlantic provinces. Last month, as part of the Island Producers Helping Islanders initiative, those in need of food could drive by several potato stands across PEI and take bags home. In total, the board gave away 75,000 pounds of potatoes, board general manager Greg Donald said.
“I think it’s typical of Islanders,” Mr. Donald said. “Even if they are having a rough time, they’re helping others in need.”
Islanders are not alone in trying to deal with a surplus. In Belgium, secretary-general Romain Cools urged citizens to eat frozen fries at least twice a week to mitigate an estimated loss of $135-million in the country’s frozen potato industry. Farmers in Idaho are feeding surplus potatoes to cattle, shipping them to nearby states or simply dumping them. Even in Alberta, New Brunswick and Manitoba, hundreds of millions of potatoes are sitting in storage.
The PEI government announced last week that $4.7-million in funding for the potato industry will enable 40 million kilograms of potatoes to be processed, rather than being disposed of. Mr. Donald said plans are in place to store extra potatoes and process them in the fall, when restaurants could open and demand could increase.
But Mr. Donald acknowledges that a global health crisis makes it difficult to predict when the market will come back. For now, he hopes people in PEI will continue to buy potatoes like they have been during a time when nutritious and preservable food is in particularly high demand.
“Potatoes are rich in vitamins, have more potassium than bananas and [are] relatively good for storability. They are the unsung heroes of the pandemic.”
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