PRESQUE ISLE — Members of Maine’s potato industry credit border inspections with bringing attention to the woes of growers, but they say the inspections have done little to raise prices.
The federal government has announced that the heightened U.S.-Canada border inspections will continue at least until a meeting between American and Canadian trade officials is held next week in Ottawa.
Next week’s meeting should produce some heated discussion.
Doug Tyler, New Brunswick’s agriculture and rural development minister, said Thursday that he was losing patience with the potato inspections.
“This situation has to stop,” Tyler said. “This amounts to nothing less than harassment on the part of the Americans towards potato producers and shippers in New Brunswick.”
Tyler said using technical regulations “to slow the movement of potatoes across the border is, in my view, an unacceptable form of harassment.”
Maine Rep. John Baldacci thinks next week’s meeting will be useful.
“I think it is important that we are getting them to the table to talk about those issues because we haven’t been able to in the past,” the Bangor congressman said Thursday. “It’s an important meeting and comes at the request of the Canadians.”
Baldacci said several types of meetings are planned between the two governments on potato issues.
A meeting between American and Canadian trade officials is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 26, in Ottawa.
Mickey Kantor, the U.S. trade representative, expects to have in hand this month a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture concerning subsidies awarded Canadian growers. He has said if evidence shows that subsidies permit the Canadians to sell their product cheaper in U.S. markets, he will move to impose countervailing duties on those imports.
Tyler counters that government aid to the industry is not that different on the two sides of the international border.
Ray Soucy, a Fort Kent grower and shipper, was less than enthusiastic about projected meetings between the two countries.
The more the officials meet, the less effective American claims will become, said Soucy. Kantor should make a decision on his own without the influence of Canadians, he added.
“The only thing we can do is to have a class action lawsuit against Kantor,” said Soucy. “Get him before a federal judge and hope the judge is sympathetic to our cause. What is the sense of talking with the Canadians? It will only appease the Maine farmer until the shipping season is all over.
“Should we believe that the Canadians with 11,000 more truckloads to sell this year and nowhere to go except the U.S., would want to give up what they call `their’ rights? Of course not.”
Andy Yaeger of H. Smith Packing Corp. in Blaine, said the inspections may have interrupted the delivery schedule of Canadians a bit but mainly helped bring unfair trade issues to the forefront.
Yaeger said orders at his business started picking up the week before Christmas while grocers were stocking their shelves, and has slackened off some since then.
If the demand remains strong, prices should go up soon, said Yaeger.
“Even if the demand drops off a little, I think the price will be steady,” he said. “I don’t see prices dropping. I have the feeling prices for good potatoes will increase.”
Wayne Smith of Caribou, a longtime market adviser, said demand had picked up a little and prices had improved slightly on 10-pound bags of round white varieties. Those that were selling for $7.20 to $8 per hundredweight had moved up to $7.50 to $8, he said.
Smith said low stocks of potatoes in the western states, Maine’s chief competitor for russet varieties, has raised the demand for Maine potatoes.
“Their 10-pound bags are selling at $9.50 to $10 per hundredweight and moving higher,” said Smith. Maine potatoes delivered to the markets, including freight costs, is $5 per hundredweight less than western potatoes, he said.
John Logan, director of advertising and quality control for the Maine Potato Board, reported a conversation he had Wednesday with a Canadian reporter working for news wire services.
During the interview, Logan was asked about Maine’s cost of production.
“I said ours averaged between $1,700 and $1,800 per acre, that some could be as high as $2,000 to $2,2O0 depending on the operation,” Logan said. “When I asked what Canada’s were, he said a Prince Edward Island official estimated Canadian costs at $1,000 to $1,100 per acre.”
When Logan reminded the reporter that currency difference between the two countries gave Canadians an additional 30 percent advantage in the American market, the reporter responded “`No wonder you are suspicious,”‘ said Logan.