Potato Farmers Face “Mental, Financial Stress”
As Alberta’s potato industry reels from the devastation of COVID-19, one industry spokesperson says he is worried the mental health and wellness of farmers could be at stake. Terence Hochstein, executive director for the Potato Growers of Alberta (PGA), said recent blows to potato farms have stoked his concerns for farm families.
“I’m worried about the growers, the families – the mental stress and the mental strain on the family farms. It’s hard on the spouse, it’s hard on the kids, it’s hard on the workers. That’s where the untold story is – the mental stress and the financial stress on these family farms,” Hochstein said.
As restaurants closed their doors to ward off the spread of the pandemic, potatoes that would otherwise go toward fries and chips sat in producers’ freezers instead. As a result, farmers have been advised to cut the volume of potatoes they grow this year by up to 30%. That means the potato processing industry is facing down a USD60m to USD70m loss, while seed potato farmers will lose between USD5m and USD6m. Hochstein said that’s a 10% income cut for farmers who already operate on razor thin margins. He added that the industry is sitting on some 100,000 tons of potatoes right now that need to be processed by September. As the backlog grew and freezers hit their limits, processing plants such as McCain Foods, Lamb Weston and Cavendish Farms shut down temporarily, partly because they had nowhere to send the finished product.
“The plants are up and running now, but we’ve lost so many run days in a plant that they can’t begin to use all of these potatoes,” Hochstein said. There’s nowhere else for these potatoes to go, either: the type of potato used for French fries, the russet Burbank, doesn’t make a very good table potato. They’re planted for a specific use, and that is predominantly French fries, hash browns and the breakfast patties – frozen potato products,” Hochstein explained.
In early May, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen announced new supports for the potato industry. The province began increasing interim payments under the federal/provincial AgriStability program to 75% from 50% for the potato industry, but that doesn’t cover inputs and equipment – the main expense on a potato farm.
The federal government’s Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), providing interest-free loans of up to CAD40,000, won’t do much to help farmers, either, when compared to the actual losses.