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Potatoes are a billion-dollar industry in PEI, which grows about 2.5 billion pounds each year. As American buyers look elsewhere for a more reliable supply, farmers say the ripples of the export ban are being felt across the rural economy

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Andrew Smith, a fifth-generation potato farmer, assesses the soil on last year’s cover crop, where he expects to plant fewer potatoes this season.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Andrew Smith doesn’t need new things to worry about. As a potato farmer, he already frets about the rain. The frost. Wireworm. Blight. Pests. Weeds. Rising fertilizer, labour and fuel costs. On summer nights, he stresses so much about his irrigation system that he sleeps in the fields in his pickup truck, waiting for something to break down.

This spring, he added a new item to his list of worries: a potato-chip plant in Pittsburgh, Pa., to which, for the past 12 years, Smith Farms has shipped a quarter of the spuds it grows on its 1,115 acres in central Prince Edward Island. The owner of that chip plant recently told Mr. Smith the business relationship is coming to an end.

The reason? Potato wart, a disease caused by the Synchytrium endobioticum fungus, which spreads easily and can reduce harvests. After the wart was detected in two PEI fields last fall, Canada quickly shut down most shipments of the province’s potatoes to the United States, in order to dissuade the Americans from imposing their own ban.

While Mr. Smith’s farm has never had any sign of potato wart, the export ban – which ended in March – is still affecting his business directly.

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Red dirt stains decades of business cards and notes in Andrew Smith's farm office in Newton, P.E.I. As the damage from the U.S. border closure continues to mount, Smith is still unsure what to plant this season.

For one thing, it spooked the American chip plant, which needs a consistent flow of potatoes. “They said, ‘We’ll finish out this season, but we don’t think we’ll continue,’ ” Mr. Smith said, sitting in his red-dust-covered farm office. “I’m going to go back and fight for my life, but it’s not looking good. We’re considered too high-risk.”

It’s planting season on Prince Edward Island, which is normally a time of optimism for most farmers. But potato growers on the island, who produce more spuds than those in any other province, are feeling anxious. The wart, which poses no health risk to humans but disfigures potatoes, could be found again this year. Fears that exports could be shut down a second time are causing many growers to cut back production and shift to other crops.

Potatoes are a billion-dollar industry in Canada’s smallest province, which grows about 2.5 billion pounds of spuds each year – about 40 per cent of which are normally sold to the U.S. As American buyers look elsewhere for a more reliable supply, farmers in PEI say the ripples are being felt across the rural economy.

They say potatoes have helped finance community hockey rinks, church renovations, fire-hall upgrades and school fundraisers. Those kinds of projects are in jeopardy as farms trim their budgets.

PEI’s potato marketing board says the export ban, which didn’t affect processed potato products, cost growers upward of $50-million in lost revenue. Hundreds of people who staff packing plants and the island’s many dark, air-cooled potato warehouses were left without work for months, fleets of trucks sat idle and farm mechanics’ shops were silent.

Almost 300 million pounds of potatoes – just more than a 10th of the island’s total harvest in 2021 – were destroyed. Many were mulched back into farmers’ fields with giant snow blowers or fed to cattle. Farmers say the financial damage caused by the ban, despite federal compensation efforts, will be felt for many years.

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A load of potatoes waits to be unloaded before being sent over to Jennifer Rafferty (below, centre,) a quality control inspector, who works with colleagues to package the potatoes in foil at W.P. Griffin Inc.

“None of this helps rural Prince Edward Island. If the jobs aren’t there and the income isn’t there, there’s no reason to live there anymore,” Mr. Smith said. “If someone comes to me today and says, ‘We’re doing this community project, will you support it,’ I don’t know if I could. I’ve got a lot of lost income and it’s going to take me a long time to make that up.”

Mr. Smith, whose family has been growing potatoes for five generations, said he’ll plant several hundred fewer acres of the crop this year. His phone keeps ringing with calls from land owners wondering if he’s going to lease their properties for use as potato fields, or buy their seed potatoes, and he doesn’t know what to tell them.

Other farmers say they’re barely holding on after losing some of their most profitable customers. They say even though the border has been reopened to exports, they’ve lost critical time to secure lucrative contracts in the U.S.

“Our plans are a lot smaller now. It’s basically just survival,” said Colton Griffin, vice-president of W.P. Griffin, a family-owned grower and packer in Elmsdale, PEI. “This has set us back to square one. This has been devastating for a lot of people.”

In the company’s packing plant, a new processing line for flavoured miniature baking potatoes sits covered under plastic. A year ago, this equipment was supposed to serve an expanding niche market in American grocery stores.

This spring, uncertainty caused by the export ban has scared off those customers. Left without buyers and unsure when the border might reopen, the company was forced to destroy about 18 million pounds of potatoes.

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Following the closure of the U.S. border to island potatoes, Colton Griffin, co-owner of W.P. Griffin Inc., was forced to send nearly all of his employees home and destroyed roughly 19 million pounds of harvested potatoes.

“Everyone we were working on selling those to has moved on. A lot of the relationships we’d built have been lost,” Mr. Griffin said. “Even if I was to service that market for a year or two, my product could disappear again, and they’d be in a pinch.”

In part because the ban was prompted by the discovery of potato wart in just two fields – not a widespread outbreak – farmers here complain that the response to the problem has been complicated by politics and propaganda, much of it pushed by the American potato industry. The export ban came as the island’s farms were celebrating a record harvest.

The Washington-based National Potato Council has criticized the decision to reopen the border to Canadian potato exports, contending that the wart issue is not under control despite increased inspections. Seed potatoes, which are used to plant the next year’s crop, still can’t be exported from PEI or transported to other Canadian provinces. That restriction may not be lifted for another two years, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

“Should potato wart be transmitted to the United States, the economic consequences would be devastating and immediate. Beyond the domestic costs to growers and the industry, the U.S. would likely immediately lose access to all international fresh potato markets, costing the industry over $225 million in annual exports and billions of dollars in additional indirect damage,” the council said in a statement.

The first North American potato-wart infections were detected in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1909, prompting legislation that banned the transportation of soil and potatoes from the island into Canada – a quarantine that remained in effect after Newfoundland became a province. It’s still in effect today.

The fungus’s presence on Prince Edward Island was first documented in 2000. Since then, new protocols to control the spread of the disease, including washing potatoes to remove any contaminated soil, have helped keep the border open despite discoveries of infected fields.

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Mr. Smith assesses potatoes from last year’s crop that should have been sold by now inside one of his warehouse bins. Though his farm has never had any sign of potato wart, the export ban is still affecting his business directly.

What’s especially frustrating for some farmers here is that Cavendish Farms, a frozen French fry company that is the largest buyer of processing potatoes on PEI, also operates the farm where the wart was first discovered last fall. As a processor, the company isn’t affected by the export ban, yet it has benefited from the border closure, which has depressed local prices for the potatoes it buys.

The PEI chapter of the National Farmers Union says infected fields operated by Cavendish Farms and others should be taken out of production permanently and turned into forests. The organization argues such an eradication strategy is the only way to stop the spread of the fungus, which can lie dormant in soil for decades and be spread by farm equipment.

Cavendish, which is the largest private employer on the island, declined to discuss any measures it may be taking to prevent the spread of potato wart from its fields. The company did not answer questions about whether infected fields would be taken out of production.

“Cavendish Farms depends on a strong agricultural community and is proud to produce superior quality products using high quality Prince Edward Island potatoes. As a member of the PEI agricultural community, Cavendish Farms recognizes the significant impact the decision to stop fresh and seed potatoes from being exported to the United States had on Island growers,” Marc Doucette, Cavendish’s vice-president of communications, said in an e-mail.

Mr. Smith, walking through his warehouse filled with potatoes that should have been sold by now, said all he has ever wanted to do is run his family farm. Some of his happiest memories are of following behind his father’s harvester as a young boy, picking spuds out of the rows of red soil.

Stress is always a part of the job when you rely on fluctuations in weather and markets for your livelihood, he said. Farmers understand and accept that. But, as he prepares for another long and uncertain potato growing season, he hopes he’s doing the right thing.

“No one has given us any guarantee this won’t happen again,” he said.

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A rainstorm passes through Central Bedeque, Prince Edward Island. Planting season is normally a time of optimism, but this year potato growers on the island are feeling anxious.

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