This Canada

Gambling for potatoes

David Folster October 6 1980
This Canada

Gambling for potatoes

David Folster October 6 1980

Gambling for potatoes

This Canada

David Folster

Rain has fallen over the New Brunswick potato belt, stopping the annual harvest in its muddy tracks. In farmyards and storage sheds, men tinker with equipment or rack potatoes while they wait impatiently for the autumn sun to dry the fields. But not Everett Culberson. Tending a small wood-stove store justoff the Trans-Canada Highway at Waterville,120 km north of Fredericton, he no longer shares his neighbors’ preoccupation with getting the crop in. Three years ago he and his five sons dug their last potato. With five farms and 350 acres, they were among the area’s largest growers. But “we were getting back about half our costs. We looked the situation over and decided to get out.” They sold their machinery and much of the land and paid their bills. “We were lucky. We don’t owe anybody.” Still, there are twinges of regret. At 56, Culberson, hale and white-bearded, would “like to be

farming yet, and I would be if I could make a living at it.”

The lament is familiar in almost any Canadian farm community, but especially in New Brunswick’s potato belt, a green and undulating tract stretching about 160 km along the St. John River from Woodstock to Saint-Léonard. The area is as diverse as it is large, encompassing French-Canadian farmers in the north, Danish and Scottish descendants in its midsection, and God -fearing Anglos in the south. The great leveller is the potato: for all its basic nutritional value, it has always extracted a heavy toll among those who grow it. The life is a gambling one characterized by undisciplined markets and unpredictable weather. When a potato farmer sows his crop in the spring, he has no idea what size it will be, or what price it could bring, in the fall. Little wonder then that when the harvest season finally arrives, as it has now, an atmosphere of feverish activity descends on the region, and few of the 40,000 people

who live there aren’t touched by it.

Harvest days begin in the predawn hours and last until well after dark. Autumn colors burn in the hardwood trees behind the fields; the air is clear and crisp. In the old days, harvesttime was the stuff of a John Steinbeck novel: hordes of migrant workers arrived from Quebec, Nova Scotia and other parts of New Brunswick, were put up in bunkhouses and handpicked the crop. Today much of it is gathered by mechanical harvesters, great clanking machines that either suck up the potatoes vacuum-cleaner-style or churn them onto a conveyor where they are separated from the rocks by hand.

The machines cost $35,000 to $40,000, and at that price there are, understandably, holdouts for the old method. “The harvesters are big, heavy and expensive, and they don’t speed things up any,” says Clarence Hunter of Riverbank, near Florenceville. A farmer for 34 years, Hunter has hired 30 pickers this fall, most of them school kids for whom classes started in August and shut down Sept. 19 for three weeks. Armed with Indian-made potato baskets, the pickers crawl across a potato field like ants, each filling an average of 40 barrels a day, though some regularly top 100 barrels. At a pay rate of 50 cents per barrel, Hunter calculates the mere harvesting of his 20,000-barrel-crop pumps $10,000 into the local economy.

Had he listened to his wife last spring, Hunter might not be making

that contribution. After three straight years of low prices, Jean Hunter was all for quitting. “I was very strong,” she says. “I didn’t see how we’d carry on.” At one point last winter the Hunters sold potatoes for $2.60 a barrel and “no one in this valley can grow potatoes for that.” But in mid-September the price was in the $9 range (it had been $15 in late July), and the Hunters are happy they stayed in one more year.

This fall’s promising prices are partly due to a general drop in U.S. and Canadian potato acreages in recent years. But every silver lining has its cloud: if good prices are sustained through the winter, there’s a risk farmers will rush onto their fields next spring and plant more potatoes than ever. The probable result would be a return to depressed prices. For years governments have talked about taking the vicissitudes out of the industry, perhaps by setting prices and supply quotas, but with a breed as independent and inherently suspicious of government as the potato farmer, the task isn’t easy. Early last month the National Farm Products Marketing Council held hearings in Eastern Canada on a proposal to establish a regional potato marketing council. Not surprisingly, opinions on the concept are as varied as potatoes themselves, and no consensus is looming on the agrarian horizon.

In an office directly across the St. John River from the sprawling McCain Foods processing complex at Florenceville sits Joe Drozdowski, a would-be lawyer who has interrupted his studies to work for the New Brunswick Potato Agency. The office has a couple of ap-

propriate trappings: a plant sits atop a potato barrel, and a sign above a secretary’s desk proclaims POTATO EATERS LOVE LONGER. Part of Drozdowski’s job is to promote, if not the prowess-inducing qualities of spuds, at least the idea of eating them. But, more important, he also is charged with regulating their marketing. He admits to only “marginal” success—price-cutting among growers remains a problem—but he insists stability is still what the industry needs most. That and marketing help.

Not many years ago a diner ordering a baked potato in a restaurant in Fredericton was presented with, amazingly, a foil-wrapped Idaho baker. The experience symbolizes the pervasive competition New Brunswick farmers face, not only from Idaho and the traditional Canadian potato-growing area, Prince Edward Island, but from Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and Washington state, too, all of which have lately expanded their potato acreages. Still, despite the onetime pre-eminence of neighboring Maine as a cornucopia of good potatoes, Drozdowski believes New Brunswick

can find profitable new markets of its own in New England and New York. “Basically we have to produce the right quality and be aggressive in the marketplace.”

Marketing acumen is something McCain Foods has never lacked, and 60 per cent of New Brunswick’s potato crop will soon be processed into products like french-fries and chips. The remainder goes for seed and table potatoes. McCain gets part of its potato supply from farmers who sign contracts before spring planting to deliver a specified quantity at a specified price. Supporters

of “contracting” say it removes some of the uncertainty from the marketplace, which it does. But other farmers complain the McCain price isn’t high enough. And, of course, in years when prices on the open market suddenly soar—it happens occasionally— farmers who are locked into a contract at a fixed price agonize over missing out on the Big Payoff.

The past few years have been rough on the chance-takers. While market prices sometimes dipped to $2 a barrel, costs for fuel, fertilizer and spray materials went the other way. Some farmers like Everett Culberson decided themselves to pack it in; the banks decided for others. For Jack Mclssac, whose farm is within sight of the McCain complex, it has meant contracting a portion of his 100-acre crop for the first time in 35 years of farming. Pausing in his welltended, flower-filled yard where he has returned to repair a broken-down harvester, Mclssac explains the arithmetic: “We sold nearly all of our crop last year for $2 less than the contract price. We had to do something to guarantee us money to pay bills with.”

Still, as the days shorten and the annual race against heavy frost intensifies, there’s little time to dwell on travails like this. The challenge is togetthe crop in. Between mid-September and the end of October, harvesters and pickers will rake over 52,000 acres and gather in nearly 1.1 billion pounds of potatoes. The days may start with the “Potato Pickers Special,” a potpourri of harvest information aired on radio and television from WAGM in Presque Isle, Me. For some, the days won’t end until the harvester lights are switched off shortly before midnight. Meanwhile, the talk in the towns and villages and country stores is all about the weather—and potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. Later will come the anxious watching of the market. “Things look real good right now,” says Jack Mclssac. “This year is going to help a lot of farmers.” Driving through the potato belt, it’s possible to miss much of the financial drama underlying the frenetic harvest. Many of the homes and farm buildings are large, white and affluent-looking. The distant purplish hills give a benign cast to the scene. But a stop in a country store, even the tiny one in Lakeville, quickly sets the record straight. “You can see it right in here,” says the woman behind the counter. “Things really pick up when they get a little money in their pockets.” She says she wishes the schools would stay open to accommodate younger children: then mothers would help with the harvest too. But her main concern is the farmer. “I don’t want anybody to get rich. But it’d be nice if they made enough to keep going.”