‘Average’ potato crop may be good for growers in Sudbury area

Groceries overall to cost 4 per cent more next year, research says

Emile Mainville, of Beaulieu Farm in Chelmsford, Ont., said this year's crop of potatoes has been of average yield. John Lappa/Sudbury Star

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A potato shortage elsewhere in North America, brought on by an unusually cold and wet harvest, could actually benefit producers in Greater Sudbury.

Emile Mainville, owner of Beaulieu Farm in Chelmsford, says that despite a slow start to the growing season and some early snow, his spud yield has been good if down from previous years.

“We had a couple of real bumper crops the last two years,” Mainville explained. “This year is not a bumper crop, but it’s about average.

“We might be down 15 per cent compared to last year, but nothing serious.”

Unseasonably cold, wet weather in parts of Canada and the United States has caused problems for some of the continent’s top producers. While Alberta and Idaho farmers have been able to salvage many of their crops — roughly 6.5 per cent of Albertan potatoes have been damaged, according to recent estimates — those in Manitoba, Minnesota and North Dakota haven’t been as fortunate.

Farmers in Manitoba were forced to leave some 18 per cent of the tasty tubers frozen in the ground. That’s equivalent to the total of unharvested crops in the entire country last year.

Prince Edward Island, the largest producer in Canada, was expected to release harvest numbers on Friday.

The United States Department of Agriculture projects a 6.1 per cent decline in total potato crops from a year ago, making it one of the lowest yields since 2010. Harvested potatoes were much smaller than usual this year.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University, says it’s difficult to tell how much retail prices will be affected, since potato prices have already gone up in the past year.

Emile Mainville, of Beaulieu Farm in Chelmsford, Ont., said this year’s crop of potatoes has been of average yield. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network John Lappa / John Lappa/Sudbury Star

According to Statistics Canada, a 10-pound bag of potatoes in Canada retails for an average of $9.77, up from $8.11 a year ago, while frozen fried potatoes have gone up 17.1 per cent as well, retailing now at $3.02 for one kilogram.

In a recent column, Charlebois said some foodservice operators may shrink portion sizes for the same price, as in retail, which is easy to do with fries, chips and smaller baked potatoes. But while vigilant consumers will likely notice, he added, most won’t think twice.

“Canada is only the 18th largest potato producer in the world but we take our potatoes seriously,” Charlebois wrote. “We won’t run out of potatoes any time soon and they’ll remain quite affordable.”

Sudburians need not worry about Deluxe Hamburgers running out of fries, but if potato prices stay higher than in previous years, growers such as Mainville may benefit.

“We’ll know better in a week or so,” Mainville said. “The price might stay up just a bit, because of trouble someplace else. For our 10-pound (bag), we might get an extra 25 cents, compared to last year.”

And if shortages elsewhere lead more Nickel City households and businesses to buy local, he added, so much the better.

Meanwhile, the average Canadian family can expect to pay 4 per cent more for groceries next year led by meat because of a complex interplay of environmental, biological, geopolitical and trade issues, new university research says.

The cost of food for the average Canadian family will rise by $487 to $12,667 next year, according to Canada’s Food Price Report by Dalhousie University in Halifax and the University of Guelph.

British Columbia, Manitoba, Quebec, and Prince Edward Island are expected to exceed the national average increases, while price hikes in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia are forecast to be lower, the researchers said. Consumers in Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador are likely to see price hikes similar to the national average, according to the report.

“Food inflation is desirable, but when prices increase quickly families can be left behind,” Charlebois, the report’s lead author and a professor at Dalhousie, said in a statement Wednesday. “One in eight Canadian households is food insecure and food affordability is a major issue,” Guelph project lead Simon Somogyi said.

Meat led the forecast with a projected price rise of 4 to 6 per cent, while vegetables may rise 2 to 4 per cent, fruits may cost 1.5 to 3.5 per cent more and seafood 2 to 4 per cent extra, the report shows. Dairy items are marked for a 1 to 3 per cent hike while bakery goods may come in at up to 2 per cent more expensive, according to the forecast using predictive analysis and machine learning algorithms.

Most of those estimates are near double Canada’s current overall rate of inflation of less than 2 per cent. The Bank of Canada held its benchmark interest rate at 1.75 per cent for its ninth consecutive meeting on Wednesday, a move in part to stem rising household borrowing.

“Canadians aren’t making more money, so they’re taking money away from other parts of their budgets just to eat and that gets tougher and tougher,” Somogyi said. “The ever-increasing use of foodbanks across the country shows us how many Canadians can’t afford to put food on their plates.”

Some 863,000 Canadian use a food bank each month, a 28 per cent increase since 2008, according to a Nov. 29 report by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

The main catalysts for higher food prices are climate change, geopolitical conflicts, single-use plastic packaging and the effect of increasingly protectionist trade environments on Canada’s exports, Dalhousie researcher Eamonn McGuinty said. He also cited disease outbreaks and the disruption of the supply chain by technology that’s led to more customized food options.

Canadians have embraced plant-based foods, if the response to fake meats at fast-food chains this year is any indication, but vegetables are predicted to rise in price only second to meat, the report shows.

Dalhousie’s Charlebois called on the agriculture sector and the government to support policies promoting the year-round production of fruits and vegetables, including subsidies for indoor and greenhouse farming and funding for research that helps it.

Canada should also develop alternatives to single-use plastic materials, legislate plastic use, and implement tax regimes that encourage producer responsibility, he said.

“Canada’s new Food Guide encourages Canadians to eat more vegetables, but they’re getting more expensive,” Dalhousie’s Charlebois said. “Increasing the amount of vegetables and fruits we produce domestically would be a great start in solving this problem.”

— With files from Postmedia Network

 

bleeson@postmedia.com

Twitter: @ben_leeson

 

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