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Prince Edward Island farmers losing money day by day in potato export crisis.

For Keisha Rose Topic, pictured here in one of her potato fields with her father, Boyd, and daughter, Mae, farming is a family business. (Courtesy: Keisha Rose Topic)

After 20 years of successful management, potato wart has closed the U.S. border again. 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.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is concerned about the discovery of potato wart in two P.E.I. fields in October. Farmers heard from the CFIA 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.

Deanna Gaudet a potato grower in eastern P.E.I:
"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. We still semi-celebrated, but it was just with heavier hearts."
Potato wart poses no risk to humans or food safety. It disfigures potatoes and makes them unmarketable. Courtesy: CFIA

Potato wart poses no risk to humans or food safety. It disfigures potatoes and makes them unmarketable. (Courtesy: CFIA)

The P.E.I. Potato Board estimates the value of the U.S. fresh potato market, the target of this suspension, at USD 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. 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 Gaudet's brothers, said every day the border is closed is costly.

Keisha Rose Topic a potato grower in eastern P.E.I.:
"As things are shut we're losing money day by day. It's not a week or month thing that we want to see this go on."
Deanna Gaudet likes to make sure her kids are around the farm. Here, they are learning about potato packing on the job.

Deanna Gaudet likes to make sure her kids are around the farm. Here, they are learning about potato packing on the job. (Courtesy: Deanna Gaudet)

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 reduce 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.

Deanna Gaudet:

"I always have my kids around the farm because I really want to instill farm life in them. It's really important for us."
She does this, despite knowing the toll farm life can take.
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Deanna Gaude:
"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. 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.

Deanna Gaude:
"I remember doing that and thinking it was really important."
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.
Gaudet's boys in the harvester. Courtesy: Deanna Gaudet

Gaudet's boys in the harvester. (Courtesy: Deanna Gaudet)

Twenty years ago, P.E.I., the Canadian government, and the USDA developed a management plan to control the spread of potato warts. 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.
  • Federal agriculture minister 'working extremely hard' to resume fresh potato trade with U.S.
  • P.E.I. vows to fight federal decision to halt potato exports to U.S. over potato wart fungus

Rose Topic:
"It's like someone's locked in a room and no one is telling them how to get out. That's the frustrating part. Some more clarification on that would be greatqq."
Bibeau and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have both said that the suspension is not based on science. In a statement to CBC News Thursday evening, the CFIA said it has confidence in the protocols currently in place to mitigate the risk of the spread of potato wart.

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.

Deanna Gaude:
"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. 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.

Deanna Gaude:
"I don't think you can take the farm out of anyone. 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."
Rose Topic in a potato field with her daughter, Mae. (Courtesy by Keisha Rose Topic)

Rose Topic in a potato field with her daughter, Mae. (Courtesy: Keisha Rose Topic)