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Canada: P.E.I. farmers 'losing money day by day' in potato export crisis

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For Kiesha Rose Topic, pictured here in one of her potato fields with her father, Boyd, and daughter, Mae, farming is a family business. © Submitted by Keisha Rose Topic For Kiesha Rose Topic, pictured here in one of her potato fields with her father, Boyd, and daughter, Mae, farming is a family business.

P.E.I. farmers are five days into a suspension of trade for their potatoes into the U.S. market and it is five days of sales lost for large farms and family farms alike.

Farmers had little heads up on the suspension. It was put in place on Monday by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said that was done to prevent the Americans from doing the same thing, a move that might be more difficult to reverse.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is concerned about the discovery of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields in October. Farmers had little advance notice of the trade suspension, hearing last Friday evening it could be coming.

Deanna Gaudet had been planning a 60th birthday celebration for her father — who grows potatoes in eastern P.E.I. — on that day, but it turned into a very different activity around the table.

"Him and my two brothers, who farm with him, were all sitting around the kitchen table on a conference call, listening to the news that was to come," said Gaudet.

"We still semi-celebrated, but it was just with heavier hearts."

The P.E.I. Potato Board estimates the value of the U.S. market at $120 million a year.

Layoffs coming

This is a busy time of year for potato sales, with American Thanksgiving this week and Christmas on the way.

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Keisha Rose Topic, who also grows potatoes in eastern P.E.I., as well as operating a potato packer that her family co-owns with the Gaudet family, said every day the border is closed is costly.

"As things are shut we're losing money day by day," said Rose Topic.

"It's not a week or month thing that we want to see this go on."

Rose Topic said her own farm serves a lot of Canadian markets, though her American markets are growing. Her more immediate concern is for the packing facility, which serves about two dozen farms and employs 33. It currently runs two shifts, but she said it seems likely one of those shifts will have to be dropped if the border is not opened within a week.

Potato wart disfigures potatoes and reduces yields, but it is not a threat to human health. The fungus that causes it is listed as a serious concern by the USDA.

'The sacrifice is just normal'

Gaudet is no longer active on her family farm, but remains close to it.

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"I always have my kids around the farm because I really want to instill the farm life in them," she said.

"It's really important for us."

She does this, despite knowing the toll farm life can take.

"It was just normal for us to see Dad going back out to the farm after supper or to not be at the rink or at the soccer field to watch us playing sports because he was working, because the farm was the priority," she said.

"The sacrifice is just normal, and it remains normal. So there's a lot of passion there and that's what makes this so difficult."

Trapped by unknown circumstances

This is not the first time Rose Topic's family has gone through this.

Potato wart was first discovered on P.E.I. in 2000, and that also prompted a border closure. She remembers, as a 12-year-old, helping her father send faxes to lobby MPs all across Canada.

"I remember doing that and thinking it was really important," she said.

The frustration then is much as it is now. No one is able to say what needs to change in order to get the border reopened.

Twenty years ago, P.E.I., the Canadian government and the USDA developed a management plan to control the spread of potato wart. Despite sporadic discoveries since then the border has remained open. There is so far no clear answer to the question of what is different this time.

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"It's like someone's locked in a room and no one is telling them how to get out. That's the frustrating part," said Rose Topic.

"Some more clarification on that would be great."

'Why are we doing this?'

The border closure is also coming in a year where the harvest has been called the best in generations. And it follows difficult, muddy harvests in 2018 and 2019, and a drought last year.

"To finally get a great year and you're expecting these really good prices and the demand is there and then that all comes to a halt," said Gaudet.

"You kind of have the attitude of, 'Why bother. Why are we doing this?'"

But while there may be moments like that, Gaudet will continue to take her children to farm, not only because she wants it to be part of them, but because it is part of her.

"I don't think you can take the farm out of anyone," she said.

"If you are raised on a farm you are proud to come from there. I have two sons and another baby on the way and I want them to be present on the farm as much as possible. If they want to be farmers that would be great. I know my father would try to steer them another way, but if it's in you, it's in you."

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