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Eat fries, help Canadian farmers stuck with spuds during pandemic

Last Updated Apr 28, 2020 at 2:59 pm PDT

FILE - A customer douses french fries with ketchup. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Robert F. Bukaty.

While chip sales and raw, fresh potato sales are up compared to last year, not enough fries are being eaten

Canadian farmers are stuck with millions of potatoes as many restaurants are closed during the pandemic

Roughly three-quarters of potatoes consumed in Canada are done so in eateries nationwide

CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI (NEWS 1130) – It’s not like Canadians from coast to coast need another reason to eat poutine, but Canadian potato farmers need your help.

Millions of pounds of potatoes are in storage because spuds destined to be fries in Canada aren’t being bought by restaurants that are, for the most part, closed right now. Roughly three-quarters of potatoes consumed in Canada are done so in eateries nationwide.

Kevin MacIsaac with the United Potato Growers of Canada, based in PEI, says chip sales and raw, fresh potato sales are up compared to last year, but he’s hoping people increase their fry intake. Chip sales are up 23 per cent for obvious reasons of people snacking on the comfort food while stuck at home and potato sales at the grocery store are up 60 per cent compared to 2019.

However, with an excess of potatoes and low demand for fries, MacIsaac says farmers are worried.

“With the exception of take-out and drive-thru, we’re not able to get that volume of business that we used to have to go through those same buildings.”

Until consumption goes up, he explains farmers are stuck in a holding pattern.

“The french fires manufacturers will continue to process french fires as long as they can, the issue becomes storage or freezer storage to put those finished fries inside of, those are fairly full right now,” MacIsaac says, “So, in turn, they work until they’re able to move some inventory out and then they have to shut down and when they’re able to get sales, they start up again and keep doing that. But it’s at a very slow process compared to what it normally is.”

He says his organization has reached out to provinces across the country and estimates between 1.5 and 2 million pounds of excess raw potatoes have been put into storage because of the health emergency.

“It would take a long time to handle the amount of potatoes that we would have in excess right today is the issue. Certainly, anything we can do to encourage people to use more and use more local food within the country is great news.”

Caught off guard by the pandemic, MacIsaac says growers, who typically do well at keeping up with supply and demand, are dealing with a lack of stability and too many potatoes.

“[Fast food restaurants] are really seeing a decrease in sales, so we know those french fry companies have advised their growers that they will need probably, and there’s a range here, of anywhere between 15 per cent less to 30 per cent less than what they would have needed last year for those same growers,” he explains.

It’s hard to say what seed producers should do for the coming years. MacIsaac says since they don’t know if they should plant for chips or for fries because demand has changed so drastically.

“They’re not sure what to do today in terms of planting their crops because they’ve been told as well their orders are being cutback based on the sales expectation. That’s another part of the industry we’re looking at currently.”

He’s optimistic the industry will be able to rebound when things get back to normal, whenever that is.

“When people are able to get out again and eat and have some money to buy food and have jobs and so on, we just don’t know exactly when that will be. We’re kind of on hold right now.”