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U.S. potato ban takes a bite out of P.E.I. trucking

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Prince Edward Island's trucking industry struggles to make up for lost loads as Canada charges the U.S.'s ban on imports of the island's potato crops breaks international trade...

SPUDS AREN'T DUDS: U.S. overproduction, not fungus, is behind ban on P.E.I. potatoes.
SPUDS AREN'T DUDS: U.S. overproduction, not fungus, is behind ban on P.E.I. potatoes.

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. – Prince Edward Island’s trucking industry struggles to make up for lost loads as Canada charges the U.S.’s ban on imports of the island’s potato crops breaks international trade rules.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) imposed a temporary emergency measure prohibiting the importation of the island’s seed and table potatoes after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) confirmed a contagious potato wart disease on Oct. 24. Also known as Synchytrium Endobioticum, the infection was only found in samples from a single field. The fungus is harmless to humans (the potatoes are still edible), but hurts the spuds’ appearance, making them unmarketable.

“We want to ensure that this problem does not effect our potatoes here,” says USDA deputy press secretary Susan McAvoy. “This is something that can have a devastating effect on our potato crop.”

The CFIA quickly took steps to contain the outbreak and Canada negotiated terms to resume shipments south of the border. On Dec. 13, the U.S. agreed in writing to reopen its borders, but then rigs from P.E.I. fleets were refused entry.

Using the framework of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canadian representatives began formal discussions with U.S. trade officials on Jan. 17. Minister of International Trade, Pierre Pettigrew, requested the consultation after informal discussions had failed. Under NAFTA rules, the U.S. must grant Canada the meeting.

But in the meantime, the ban has been taking a huge bite out of P.E.I.’s economy in general, and its trucking industry in particular. The potato crop is as important to P.E.I.’s economy as the auto industry is to Ontario’s. P.E.I. last year sold $36 million in potatoes to the U.S.

“The potatoes themselves are probably not the largest impact of all. But when you take everything into consideration – all the negative factors that are going on in this trucking industry – I think it’s enough to put a few people over the edge,” says Frank Barry, of Wellington, P.E.I.-based Prince Freight Lines. For Barry, whose operation runs more than just potatoes, the larger problem is the cost of fuel. But he explains that the lack of U.S.-bound potato shipments is acting like the straw that broke the camel’s back for some companies.

For Ivan Noonan, general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board, a non-profit potato producer group, the problem isn’t really the wart: growers from Idaho and Washington have flooded the domestic market.

“The reality is there are too many potatoes in the U.S. and that is why they don’t want (P.E.I. potatoes) in there.”

According to Noonan’s calculations, Idaho and Washington have produced 30 million hundredweight more potatoes than they had planned for (1 hundredweight equals about 100 lbs.). In comparison, P.E.I. grows a total of 29 million hundredweight – less than the overproduction of those two states.

“And we shipped nothing there and the price didn’t go up,” Noonan points out.

Seafoods Express, of Charlottetown P.E.I., calculates that running potatoes into the U.S. is 30 per cent of its business. Seafoods’ Les Wait says the company is loosing about $10,000 a week due to the embargo. Seafood is doing all it can to avoid deadheading its 36 trucks all over the Eastern Seaboard, but has containers of bananas waiting to be run up to Canada.

“We’ve been here since October. And we have customers back here in the Maritimes from the States, so we have to get down there no matter what, somehow,” Wait says.

Ironically, as producers and shippers struggle to deal with rotting vegetables and missing loads, spuds from off the island – even some from Maine – are set to be trucked to P.E.I. in the spring for processing into fries. n

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