Ah, February! This shortest month has tried hard to make itself memorable and has given April such a run for its money that not even T. S. Eliot would complain. Here on the Island, we have had storm after storm, over 250 centimetres (over eight feet) of snow falling in the past seven weeks. Fortunately, (?), the roller-coaster of climate-change-impacted weather systems has given us some 10-degree days (10C) in there as well, so there has been some melting and the snowbanks are not as high as they could be.
On PEI we are slowly lifting our pandemic restrictions and have managed to do so without having convoys of protesters blocking streets and blasting air horns for weeks on end. On behalf of all Canadians, I apologize to those of you whose lunatic fringe took the idea and imported it to your own countries. I trust that they are watching events unfold in Kyiv and thinking, actually, my life here in a western democracy isn’t too bad. Even if the government makes me wear a mask and suggests I get vaccinated. They could just have bombed me into submission.
Our restaurants and music events are back to fifty per cent capacity and yesterday we removed the need to show a VaxPass to gain entry to venues. I’m not rushing out just yet though. I have downloaded lots of tunes and amuse myself listening at home.
A few days ago, I was listening to Stompin’ Tom Connors, who like Anne of Green Gables fame is an Island icon who is not actually an Islander, both being adopted from away. At least Stompin’ Tom is a real person, who lived and breathed Island air before going off to fame and fortune in Ontario. He celebrates PEI with his song, Bud the Spud – about a trucker who carries a load of potatoes up to Toronto. Have a listen if you get a chance – it’s a fun song. Although Bud the Spud from the bright red mud can become a bit of an earworm. Anyway, that started me thinking about potatoes.
As you may have heard, we experienced an outbreak of the potato wart fungus last fall. This is one of those “they did what?” stories. The fungus was first discovered on the Island about 20 years ago, and the scientists recommended that the crop be destroyed, and the two fields involved be taken out of production and planted with trees. Apparently, the fungus can live for ever in the soil, so it made sense to stop growing potatoes in those fields. Then the problem would go away.
At this point a certain large producer apparently became involved. They employ lots of people and warned of the catastrophic impact on the economic life of the province if their two fields were taken out of production. They employed some of their own scientists to produce a study and persuaded the government that it would be okay to wait a few years and then plant wart-resistant varieties. Which they did.
Twenty years later, 2021 was the best harvest year for potato growers ever. Nearly two and a half billion pounds of potatoes were harvested and stored, ready for export. In October, the media was full of stories about the ‘best one in generations’ harvest. Farmers were warned to take care not to flood the market and drive down prices.
Then, in November, potato wart was discovered again – in a field of less than one acre. This time, the government in Ottawa imposed a total ban on exports of table potatoes, and what had been a bumper year suddenly morphed into a disaster. It should be noted here that potato wart is an ugly disease, but it is not dangerous to people. You probably would not want to eat an infected potato but if you inadvertently did, the virus is not a human pathogen. Not like some other viruses we might mention.
With the American border closed to export, the big question was: what do you do with 2.5 billion pounds of potatoes? These are table potatoes, and so their shelf life is measured in months not years. And assuming a farmer is to plant and harvest a crop this year, where would she/he/they put them when the storage barns are still full of those from last year?
Some people bought truck loads and donated them to food banks around the country. A few weeks ago, the US allowed the resumption of direct shipments to Puerto Rico, which doesn’t grow potatoes and so has no risk of cross-infection. The border to the mainland, however, remains closed. The provincial government gave farmers money to destroy part of their crop and so 3m pounds of perfectly good potatoes were dumped on the frozen fields and then ‘chipped’ by running a snowblower over them – this allows the potatoes to rot into the ground once the weather warms up. But you’re only allowed to do that up to the end of February, because the potatoes must be frozen in order to be chipped. [Really! That’s not a pun!]
Then someone had a bright idea – let’s give away the crop.
On Saturday, five potato producers across Prince Edward Island opened up their storage barns and had a ‘Fill Your Boots’ event. People were invited to come along and pick up as many potatoes as they would like – and you didn’t need boots, you could use any kind of container. I went along to one farm with my shopping bags and was amazed.
There were over a hundred people queuing to get into the barn. People had laundry hampers, hockey bags, large carboard boxes, little trolleys on wheels, Rubbermaid tubs, and so forth. Many, like me, had shopping bags from large grocery chains. The fellow in front of me had four plastic milk crates, two in each hand, his fingers hooked through the mesh; I couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to carry them when they were full of potatoes.
I followed the queue deeper into the barn and through the haze a wall of potatoes appeared. It must have been almost twenty feet high and forty feet across. At the base were farm workers with snow shovels, who helped fill the various containers for the grateful customers. My bags loaded, I staggered back outside to the sunshine. And thought to myself:
What am I going to do with 40 lbs of potatoes?