Cuts to disinfection program blindsides P.E.I. Potato Board

Colin MacLean colin.maclean@journalpioneer.com
Published on November 10, 2015

Hayden Produce Inc. is using a metal detector to make sure its potatoes are completely safe going to market. Here, Paul Squires, who works at the Vernon Bridge farm, shows off some of the product.

©Heather Taweel/The Guardian

Island potato growers say cut of $500,000-a-year service is a threat to the sector’s future

The end of a subsidy that provides disinfectant services to Island potato growers is a threat to the sector’s future, an industry spokesman says.

“At least in terms of our seed potatoes, is very reckless,” said Greg Donald, general manager of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board. “It puts our whole industry at risk and it’s dangerous.”

Donald found out Monday that as of Dec. 31, the province will be cutting funding to a 30-year-old disinfection service aimed at controlling a virulent disease called potato ring rot.

The news blindsided Island potato growers, said Donald, and until they got the call informing them of the cuts, the board was under the impression that they and the province were working together to come up with a compromise to save it.

“We’ve always had a good relationship with the department of agriculture, in engaging, working together and coming together to meet challenges – but on this one we have a new minister and new deputy minister and it’s different,” said Donald.

The $500,000-a-year potato disinfection service is operated by one full-time employee and several part-time and seasonal workers.  It is based in Borden-Carleton with mobile units in other Island communities.

Most of the program is paid for by taxpayers, but the industry has contributed with a $10-per-truck fee since 1997. However, that fee pays for less than half of the total cost of the program.

In the 2015 budget, the province proposed increasing the fee to try to make up for the shortfall. The potato industry asked to find an alternative and the two sides struck a committee in August to examine the issue.

After consulting with an expert on potato diseases, the potato board suggested that disinfection services for table potatoes and the equipment that works with/transports them could be cut, if it meant saving funding to disinfect the Island’s seed potato crop, which is more susceptible to ring rot.

Donald said that’s the last the board heard from the province until the cuts were announced.

“For all we knew, the $10 … was full cost recovery. We didn’t even know (the program) was losing money. We weren’t made aware of that … I was told I couldn’t’ have access to that,” said Donald.

It’s disappointing to an industry that is tremendously important to the Island’s economy, he added.

 “The implications of this are huge.”

“We’ve been fortunate here that we haven’t had bacterial ring rot for several years. But I think that’s not good luck, it’s good management.”

Donald said he and the board are willing to sit back down with the province to discuss the issue and they’d like to see the cuts reversed.

Agriculture Minister Alan McIsaac said Monday that the province will continue to offer resources to farmers that find themselves facing outbreaks of disease and there is funding available for farms who want to continue to spray for ring rot on their own initiative.

McIsaac was scheduled to speak with the legislature’s standing committee on agriculture Tuesday afternoon and was expected to face questions about the cuts.