Dismal weather conditions cause havoc leaving thousands of acres unharvested

PEI potato production will be way down this year as a result of a bad growing season with not enough rain and then even worse harvest conditions, where too much rain turned fields into mud bogs.

There are 84,000 planted acres of potatoes on PEI and each acre is worth close to $3,000.

“We’re looking at thousands of acres left in the ground,” PEI Potato Board general manager Greg Donald told Salty. “A couple of guys have had to leave a couple of hundred acres in the ground each. If you do the math it’s a huge loss.”

Some 6,800 acres were left in the ground this year. Most years Donald said they can expect to see 500 to 1,000 acres left unharvested.

The 2018 potato harvest has been such a bust that it was the topic of questions in the provincial legislature last month. On November 13 opposition started questioning the government on what kind of help potato farmers could see if the season turned out to be a wash.

Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Robert Henderson said at that point it looked like close to 10% of the planted fields had yet to be harvested but that there are backstops in place.

“A little bit over 90% of the crop is actually under crop insurance,” he told the House. “There are some farmers that aren’t under crop insurance that also are under the AgriStability Program and some of them may tap into that particular program. As you might be aware, we did extend the application date for the AgriStability Program.”

AgriStability is a federal/provincial risk-management program intended to manage farmers’ incomes when margins fall. Payments are prompted when a producer’s profits fall to a certain level.

As of the middle of November, Henderson said it was a little too early to tell what kind of numbers would be covered by crop insurance and what wouldn’t, but he anticipated payouts will be coming.

The PEI Federation of Agriculture has watched the potato harvest with great interest and concern these past few weeks.

“It has been a challenging fall for many,” Federation executive director Robert Godfrey said. “We are certainly supportive of any government assistance that can be provided to those potato farmers who were impacted by the unusual weather we have experienced this growing season, including the wet and cold conditions of this past October.”

Donald said approximately 85% of the Island’s potato acreage is covered by crop insurance purchased by farmers. Crop insurance is helpful, but it only covers a portion of the cost of production.

“You can only buy up to 90% coverage,” he said. “And then the unit price that it’s valued at is well below the market value. Plus they factor in your previous years’ experience. For example; if you are a farmer in western PEI, they had a drought last year so their guaranteed yield is already low, then a second bad year, you only get a portion of costs out of insurance.”

He said that this year has been one of the hardest faced by Island farmers. “The most senior farmers in our industry, that I’ve talked to, have never seen a fall like this before.”

Over the course of 54 days, from September 20 to November 11, 300-400 mms of rain fell during the harvest season. The first 10 days of November alone saw a month’s worth of rainfall.

The whole year has been difficult; from a late spring frost, to a very hot dry summer, to a wet, cold fall, farmers are finding it difficult to catch a break.

“Normally you’d get a wet spell during harvest which would then break,” Donald said. “This year we’d have a couple of good days, you could start digging and then we’d get hit with more heavy rain.” Combined with the freezing temperatures this fall, it’s spelled an early end to harvest season. “One farmer told me that there was four to six inches of frost (as of Nov 16) into the ground.”

Farmers will have to fill the gap left by insurance and government assistance themselves and many will have difficulty in reaching their production goals.

“Meeting customers’ potato needs will be a significant challenge this year,” Donald said.

About Rod Weatherbie

Rod Weatherbie is a writer working in the hospitality industry. He spent a number of years in Toronto as a member of the financial press before returning to PEI. Rod has published one piece of short fiction, one book of poetry, and has had work published in Red Shift, the Antigonish Review, Mitre, and the Toronto Quarterly. He has also recently co-produced, co-directed, and acted in a stage production of old television shows.

He also likes writing about food. Go figure.

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