A $4.7 million provincial program developed in conjunction with the provincial government and Cavendish Farms should help deal with a surplus of potatoes accumulating in the warehouses of processing growers, says the general manager of the PEI Potato Board.

At the time the program was announced on April 22, there were in excess of 100 million pounds of potatoes destined for processing that were no longer needed due to the sharp drop in french fry sales following the closure of restaurants in the wake of COVID-19. Greg Donald said that number has been growing steadily since then.

The money is destined to go to Cavendish Farms to help with the cost of trucking and storing the processed product until the market improves. He stressed the company has no need for the potatoes at the present time and will incur costs over and above the money allocated in the program. The Island Farmer was unable to contact Cavendish Farms but the company indicated to CBC in a statement they were still reviewing the deal.

"It is the growers that will benefit from this program because their potatoes now have a home," Donald explained.

He described the deal as a better option than burying the potatoes, using them for livestock feed or sending them to the dehydration plant. Cavendish Farms had earlier told growers they could seek out other markets but Donald said, after an initial spike in demand in early March as the physical distancing measures went into place, the fresh market has returned to more normal volumes.

The general manager explained Cavendish Farms has instructed growers to plant 15 per cent less acres and he is also expecting a reduction in the 10-15 per cent range on the fresh market side of the ledger. He added "this is just such an unprecedented situation and we are appreciative of Cavendish Farms and the provincial government working with us."

However, there is concern in some quarters about the fact all of fund are destined for the processing company. The district director of the National Farmers Union said the deal raises "a lot of red flags."

Doug Campbell said his organziation questioned Deputy Agriculture and Land Minister Brian Matheson about the deal and "He insisted that farmers will be assisted indirectly because the Irving enterprise will be “able” to pay farmers for their potatoes that otherwise might have been dumped."

The district director said he recognizes there is a glut in the marketplace due to lost markets and that Cavendish Farms will have added storage and trucking costs over and above the money coming from government.

"That is some of the risk of doing this kind of industrial business. That’s part of their responsibility," he went on to say. "Why should tax payers’ money go toward the ordinary operational expenses of Cavendish Farms? The Irving billionaire behind Cavendish Farms might have to absorb a few percentage points decrease in profits during this time of crisis."

Campbell said he was alarmed about the lack of transparency surrounding the deal, something that also troubles Opposition Agriculture and Land Critic Michele Beaton. The Mermaid-Stratford MLA said all of the other programs announced by government have included a detailed explanation with information on when it will be available, how to get help, and who is eligible to receive the support.

This time around, she said Agriculture and Land Minister Bloyce Thompson offered only a vague explanation. Due to the fact the legislature did not sit as scheduled in April because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said there has been no opportunity to question the minister on the details.

"Islanders deserve a full explanation about where the money went," she said. "Without clear answers regarding the purpose of the funding, Islanders are fearing government may be supporting monoculture over diversity, and large processors over individual farmers. This is not in the best interest of Island farmers, rural communities, or the health and well-being of all Islanders."

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