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‘The bills will not get paid’: PEI potato farmers in need of rain

Wednesday, September 2nd 2020, 10:02 am - Due to a lack of rain, some farmers are looking at a 40 - 60 per cent crop this growing season, with 60 being the best-case scenario.

Prince Edward Island potato farmer John Visser is expecting a shortfall this growing season.

The reason: no rain.

"The bills will not get paid," he says.

His family grows over 445 hectares of potatoes on their third-generation farm in Victoria.

The lack of rain means only about a 40 to 60 per cent crop this growing season, with 60 per cent being the best-case scenario.

"This is my 41st crop, and this is the driest season I've experienced."

00Nathan coleman - potatoes Courtesy: Nathan Coleman

Ryan Barrett is a research and agronomy specialist with the PEI Potato Board.

A PEI moratorium on the drilling of high capacity wells for agriculture is preventing farmers from using irrigation to help out.

"Historically, we get 80 to 90 mm of rain a month in the growing season, and that's sufficient for the crop,” Barrett explains. “We see in the last 20 years, particularly the last five to six, an increasing trend of more weeks with no rain -- and more months with very small rainfall in July and August, particularly."

The growing season has been especially bad this year because it came on the heels of below-average rainfall in May and June.

"A lot of the crops, a lot of the potatoes, had a moisture deficit to start and then they continued that through the whole summer, and so some parts of the island have had less than a third of the normal amount of rainfall," he adds. "The ones that do survive, they just shut down, and the plant grows very little without moisture."

NATHAN COLEMAN - potatoes Courtesy: Nathan Coleman

OTHER FARMERS STRUGGLING, TOO

And it's not just potatoes. Dairy and beef farmers in PEI are short on hay, along with grain industries, peas, soybeans, and corn looking at below-average yields.

Farmer Kyle Jewell grows a variety of crops and says this year has been especially difficult, thanks to a new visitor.

"A lot of insects that we're not used to thriving in this weather … we've had an invasion of spider mites that are a normal spider that's usually found in hedgerows and ditches, but this hot, dry, windy weather has caused them to thrive, and we noticed our crop was stressed from the heat and then these mites."

The demand for potatoes dipped during the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, but Barrett says it's back on the rise.

"We've seen that the market for potatoes has generally recovered, not 100 per cent recovered, but recovered quite a bit, so there is going to be quite a strong demand for potatoes again this year," he says.

"But at the same time, Prince Edward Island isn't the only place that's been dry. New Brunswick has been dry, Ontario has been dry, other parts of the West have been dry, and then a place like Alberta that grows a lot of potatoes in some places has been too wet, so it's been in the other direction. There aren't many places in Canada where we're expecting a bumper crop of potatoes this year."

01 Nathan Coleman - Potato farmers Courtesy: Nathan Coleman

Despite the beneficial rain a tropical storm would bring, Jewell says he doesn't want to see it.

"Our corn is at a very vulnerable stage, we got into last year with Hurricane Dorian, caused havoc without corn crops, so we don't want to see a tropical storm."

He says gentle rains would help.

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