P.E.I. potato growers and politicians are lobbying for the export of fresh potatoes to Puerto Rico to resume, despite the current export ban to the United States imposed by Canada’s agriculture minister.
The P.E.I. Potato Board says the Island ships $18-$20 million worth of potatoes to the U.S. territory in a normal production year. In 2020, sales to Puerto Rico accounted for about 25 per cent of the province’s sales to the U.S.
Executive director Greg Donald said the board supports allowing potatoes to continue to be exported to Puerto Rico from P.E.I.
“We believe there is no rationale for the suspension of P.E.I. potatoes to the entire U.S.,” Donald said. “Having said that, we see it as an easy first step that should have happened by this week already.”
Bill Enserink of Red Isle Produce in Charlottetown said sales to Puerto Rico account for 20 to 25 per cent of his company’s total sales to the U.S.
He said if the border closure is based on preventing the spread of potato wart, that’s not an issue for Puerto Rico.
“There’s zero risk. There’s no potato-growing areas in Puerto Rico. It’s a separate island — the risk to the continental U.S.A. is zero,” Enserink said.
“If it was a science-based decision, there would be absolutely no reason why we couldn’t ship to Puerto Rico …people think it’s a small Caribbean island, but they consume a lot of P.E.I. potatoes. It’s a fantastic market.”
Brian Ching of Russell Ching Ltd. in Souris, P.E.I., agrees that resuming exports to Puerto Rico makes sense.
“Puerto Rico is what I call the low-hanging fruit. They don’t grow potatoes there. They eat a lot of potatoes there,” Ching said.
“I would think if the border got opened to Puerto Rico first, if that’s possible, it would be a good start and it would show that the Americans are at least bargaining in good faith and they’re willing to move a little.”
International Trade Minister Mary Ng was in Washington Thursday and met with Jenniffer González Colón, the resident commissioner of Puerto Rico, to discuss trade issues, including P.E.I. potato exports.
A spokesperson for Ng said the issue has been raised several times on this trip.
P.E.I. Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson was in Ottawa along with officials from P.E.I.’s Potato Board on Thursday to discuss the potato wart situation with federal officials, including Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.
Thompson also raised the issue of resuming trade with Puerto Rico.
“I actually had a call this morning with my counterpart in Puerto Rico, the Secretary Gonzalez,” Thompson said. “They want our product and they need our product, and so that’s what we’re dealing with right now.”
Concern about rising price
Angel Santiago, president and CEO of Caribbean Produce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said his company has been doing business with P.E.I. for more than 30 years, and imports about $4 million worth of Island potatoes annually.
He’s worried about the impact of the export ban on consumers.
“In the last years, decades, P.E.I. have been the predominant potato consumed in Puerto Rico — at least, I’ll say, 80 per cent what we call the medium russet potato, in a five-pound-bag format,” Santiago said.
“[The export ban] will affect availability of your product, and probably also affect the pricing on that product for the consumers.”
Santiago said the price of potatoes will increase without P.E.I. potatoes, because of increased transportation costs.
“There is a weekly ship that comes in and out basically direct from P.E.I., from Halifax to San Juan,” Santiago said. “It’s a very consistent service.” If they don’t get potatoes from P.E.I., then they’ll have to ship them in from Quebec or New Brunswick, which will increase the cost, he said.
Santiago said because Puerto Rico doesn’t grow potatoes, he agrees it is safe to continue to import P.E.I. potatoes.
“It won’t affect our potato crops because we don’t have potato crops in Puerto Rico,” Santiago said.
“I will ask for a revision or reconsideration, if there’s a possibility, do that, at least for Puerto Rico, because we haven’t got the problem. We’re following all the protocols — USDA protocols, our own protocols.”
Santiago said he will be reaching out to politicians in Puerto Rico, asking them to make the case for resuming exports from P.E.I., both for his company and the people he does business with on the Island.
“I’ve been to P.E.I. We’ve been there for many years now. And for me, business, it is personal,” Santiago said. “We have a personal relationship with Red Isle. We have a personal relationship with other growers.”