May 26, 2019

USDA to study Canada potato imports

PRESQUE ISLE — Increased potato acreage and bumper yields have forced Maine potato prices to bottom-of-the-barrel levels. At the same time, trucks filled with Canadian potatoes are rolling across the border again.

Prices for this year’s crop started and stayed at about $3 per 100 pounds, according to Wayne Smith of the Maine Market Advisory Program in Caribou. Prices haven’t been that low since the late 1980s, Smith estimated.

Nationally, 40,000 new acres of potatoes have been planted, Smith said. Added to that are record yields in the Northwest, according to the marketing expert.

This year, Maine planted about 77,000 acres and expects to harvest about 76,000. The crop now being harvested in Aroostook County is being described as “good’ and “average.”

“Prices are bad everywhere,” said David Lavway, executive of the Maine Potato Board. “Just too many potatoes.”

While there’s not much that can be done about the domestic production, Maine’s industry will start combating the influx of Canadian potatoes next week.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that it would begin collecting information on the volume of potatoes that is being imported into the United States from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

A USDA official will collect the information from 19 terminal markets, according to Rep. John E. Baldacci.

The new monitoring program also will collect pricing information on consumer packages of round white and russets purchased at the Boston and New York markets, according to Baldacci.

Data from the program are expected to be used to prove to U.S. trade officials that Canada is dumping its produce in markets traditionally held by Maine growers.

“We can’t say they’re killing us,” said Lavway. “We have to have the data.”

Armed with figures, the Maine industry could ask the federal government to slap a duty on potatoes crossing the border.

Lavway said he expects to receive the first report on Monday. Future daily reports may be modified to fit the industry’s needs, the industry spokesman said.

Baldacci and Sen. Olympia Snowe met with agriculture and trade officials this week, urging the government to take action against the Canadian imports. Last month, Snowe introduced legislation that would permit a significant regional segment of a domestic agricultural industry to seek expedited relief if that segment is affected by imports.

Under current U.S. law, either the entire industry or a large part of it must show injury before relief is provided.

Baldacci had asked USDA officials to approve the monitoring program by today.

“I have talked to many farmers in Aroostook County in the past few weeks,” Baldacci said. “Prices for potatoes are so low they cannot break even. They are extremely worried. They see truckloads of Canadian potatoes crossing the border and believe that the imports are driving down prices.”

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