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Chad Robertson, a sixth-generation potato farmer, stands in next to 4 million pounds of potatoes in Elmira, PEI, Dec. 8, 2021.John Morris/The Globe and Mail

Chad Robertson, part of the sixth generation of his family to coax potatoes from the red soil of eastern Prince Edward Island, always wanted to follow his father into the business.

But now, as he loses sleep over an export dispute that shows no signs of ending, he says he’s telling his sons to plan for a future away from farming, which is a stressful occupation at the best of times.

Mr. Robertson, who grows 500 acres of potatoes with his brother and father outside Souris, is among hundreds of farmers in the province who are grappling with a growing crisis in their industry: a ban on all shipments of fresh island spuds into the United States. It has already dragged on for two weeks.

A worker does quality control checking at East Point Potatoes.John Morris/The Globe and Mail

Farmers are used to dealing with unpredictability. Wild swings in weather from season to season can kill crops and swell debt. But it’s the man-made problems that are most distressing, Mr. Robertson said. The last time the U.S. banned potatoes from PEI, as part of a trade spat that lasted for six months in 2001, he and his father were forced to destroy several million pounds of potatoes by mulching them into their fields with a snow blower.

“I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face,” Mr. Robertson said. “I just can’t believe this is happening again. I know farms that haven’t moved a single potato from their crop this year.”

The ban, announced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency after the discovery of potato wart in two PEI fields in October, has prompted protests from political leaders across the island who say the risk to U.S. farms is extremely low. The fungus, which can be spread through infected seed potatoes and contaminated soil, poses no threat to human health or food safety, but it disfigures potatoes and makes them unmarketable.

In Mr. Robertson’s house, the ban is prompting talk about whether his two sons, aged 8 and 10, ought to end the family’s tradition in the potato business.John Morris/The Globe and Mail

The fallout from the U.S. export ban is already being felt across the island, in places such as the packing sheds where potatoes are sorted and washed; farm equipment dealerships; trucking firms; and even farmers’ kitchen tables, where some are making plans for leaner Christmas celebrations.

In Mr. Robertson’s house, the ban is prompting talk about whether his two sons, aged 8 and 10, ought to end the family’s tradition in the potato business. In his view, it’s politics, not weather, that may ultimately push his sons away from the farm.

“All we want to do is grow potatoes. But it’s getting harder and harder to do that,” he said. “I told my boys the other night, ‘I want you guys to do something else.’ There’s easier ways to make a living, and as a farmer there’s all this stress around being a pawn in something we have no control over.”

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Potatoes are a $1.3-billion industry in PEI – one that produces about 5,000 direct jobs and a quarter of all spuds grown in Canada. Buyers in the U.S. typically consume about 40 per cent of the fresh potatoes grown in the province.

“This to us is what oil is to Alberta, what hydro power is to Quebec,” said Jennifer Harris, director of sales and marketing for Mid Isle Farms, a potato packer in Albany. “The problem is our product is perishable. We don’t have days, we don’t have weeks and we definitely don’t have months. It’s a huge blow to our province.”

Potatoes go through a washer at East Point Potatoes.John Morris/The Globe and Mail

The U.S. market represents about 60 per cent of Mid Isle Farms’s business, she said. With no indication the impasse will be resolved any time soon, the company has laid off most of its 30 employees and is running its plant with a skeleton crew. It was a difficult decision to cut workers just weeks before the holidays, Ms. Harris said.

“There’s doubts in people’s minds, there’s questions in people’s minds and I’m sure there’s fear in some people’s minds,” she added. “There will be farms lost over this, there’s no question.”

The potato crisis has prompted the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture to expand its mental health counselling program, which helps farmers struggling with unpaid bills and anxiety about the future. Mr. Robertson said he’s worried about his neighbours, who are heavily indebted and have potato barns full of a product they may not be able to sell.

Support for farmers affected by the ban has been widespread across the island. Businesses, from furniture stores to realtors, have been giving away bags of PEI potatoes to customers. A Charlottetown radio station played Stompin’ Tom Connors’s Bud the Spud on repeat until the marathon resulted in 10,000 signatures on a petition in support of island farmers. The song celebrates the “best dog gone potatoes that’s ever been growed.” The station played it 72 times before reaching its goal.

But many on the island say they feel Ottawa still isn’t taking their concerns seriously. Potato growers aren’t allowed “at the table” where Canadian and American food inspection officials are discussing the trade dispute, said Greg Donald, general manager of the PEI Potato Board.

The potato crisis has prompted the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture to expand its mental health counselling program, which helps farmers struggling with unpaid bills and anxiety about the future.John Morris/The Globe and Mail

Some growers, particularly those who sell most of their potatoes south of the border, are worried a prolonged dispute could spell the end of a way of life for some family farms.

“For multigenerational farmers, there’s a tremendous weight on their shoulders. You don’t want to be the one who let the farm fail,” Mr. Donald said. “There’s a lot of concern out there right now.”

After two years of dry conditions, farmers on PEI were celebrating one of their best yields ever recorded and anticipating a banner year for sales into the U.S., where the 2021 potato harvest has been poor. Growers were stunned when the ban was announced, Mr. Donald said, because the wart issue was considered under control and limited to just two farms. Those fields, he said, were already “quarantined” and posed no risk to export potatoes.

“Three weeks ago, there was tremendous optimism. And then boom, and all that’s gone,” Mr. Donald said. “It’s like your pride has been crushed. We believe we grow the best potatoes in the world, and we don’t understand why they don’t want them.”

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