Prince Edward Island farmers were left with the huge surplus of potatoes after the discovery of potato wart in two fields last year prompted a halt to exports to Puerto Rico and the continental United States. (File photo by The Canadian Press)

Prince Edward Island farmers were left with the huge surplus of potatoes after the discovery of potato wart in two fields last year prompted a halt to exports to Puerto Rico and the continental United States. (File photo by The Canadian Press)

Island farmers destroy 136 million kilos of spuds

Farmers on Prince Edward Island say they expect to finish destroying about 136 million kilograms of potatoes by Friday when a federal-provincial program providing compensation for the destruction ends.

The Island farmers were left with the huge surplus of potatoes after the discovery of potato wart in two fields last year prompted a halt to exports to Puerto Rico and the continental United States.

The fungal parasite spreads through the movement of infected potatoes, soil and farm equipment, and though it poses no threat to human health, it leaves potatoes disfigured and can greatly decrease crop yields.

The Canadian government imposed the ban on the export of table-stock potatoes — which are used for food, not planting — on Nov. 22 to avoid a U.S. ban, and the United States then said it needed to review Canadian mitigation efforts before shipments could resume.

Exports to Puerto Rico resumed Feb. 9, but Greg Donald, general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board, said Monday there was no way to catch up with all the lost sales.

“It was inevitable,” he said in an interview. “We just can’t make up the volume missed with U.S. Thanksgiving, Christmas and the last few months.” As well, he said some of the early varieties from last year have reached the end of their storage life.

The surplus potatoes are spread on a field and then shredded with a large snowblower. The potato pieces decompose in the cold winter weather. “A potato is 80 per cent moisture. With the freeze and thaw they will quickly break down,” Donald said.

Colton Griffin, a farmer from Elmsdale, P.E.I., said his farm alone has destroyed 6.8 million kilograms of potatoes so far.

“We are working through the last couple million here now,” he said Monday. “We’ve not decided on a final number yet. We keep hoping for a little bit of good news before the last day, I guess.”

Griffin said his farm will feel the financial impact of this season for the next 20 to 25 years.

“In a world where you constantly have to grow to stay relevant, all our plans for growth are out the window,” he said. “(Our farm) will survive this year, but I don’t think it will survive forever now.”

Griffin said farmers are watching to see if exports resume to the continental U.S. before trying to decide how many potatoes to plant this year.

In an effort to reduce the amount of potatoes being destroyed, the Island potato industry diverted about 300 truckloads of potatoes to food banks. On Saturday, many farms participated in a promotion called “Fill your boots,” in which Islanders were encouraged to fill boots or anything else with free potatoes.

Donald said about 68,000 kilograms of potatoes were given away — the equivalent of three tractor-trailer loads. He said it was a way to thank Islanders for all their support over the last few months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to make a decision in early March whether to allow reopening the border to the rest of the United States.

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