A shortage of locally grown processing potatoes is threatening to make Manitoba an importer of spuds for the first time in more than two decades and will lead to production cuts in at least one local processing plant.
A spokesman for local potato growers said Friday a nightmare growing season last year took a big bite out of Manitoba's 2011 potato production, and that will lead to a serious shortage of processing potatoes by June.
Keystone Potato Producers Association manager Garry Sloik said that, coupled with shortages in other parts of North America, will likely lead to higher retail prices for fresh potatoes -- the kind you buy in stores -- and processed potato products such as french fries, hash browns and potato wedges.
"We just don't know exactly when it's going to happen or how much (prices will increase)."
He said because of the looming shortage, Manitoba's potato processors -- McCain Foods (Canada) and Simplot -- will likely have to import potatoes from Idaho or Washington state or shift some production to other North American plants until Manitoba's next potato crop is ready in August.
He said the last time local processors had to import potatoes was in 1989 or 1990, when drought forced them to bring potatoes in from Washington state.
Simplot spokesman David Cuoio confirmed Friday the company is already making plans to scale back production at its Portage la Prairie plant and shift the work to plants in the American Northwest.
But he couldn't say how soon that will happen, how extensive the cuts will be or how it will affect staffing at the Portage plant.
A spokesman for McCain could not be reached for comment on how the looming shortage will affect its processing plants in Portage and Carberry.
Sloik said having to import potatoes doesn't automatically mean higher prices for consumers. But the problem here is compounded by potato shortages in other parts of North America, including New Brunswick, Maine, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Some regions are facing shortages of fresh potatoes, and that will put upward pressure on potato prices.
Sloik said he doesn't think local consumers are looking at major price hikes -- competitive forces will likely prevent that.
Media reports this week said even Prince Edward Island, the potato capital of Canada, is running low on potatoes because it's exporting so much to other areas where the vegetables are in short supply.
Final 2011 numbers issued Friday by Statistics Canada show Manitoba farmers harvested 69,854 fewer tonnes of potatoes last year -- 793,800 versus 863,654 in 2010. That's despite seeding 1,214 more hectares in potatoes -- 29,543 hectares versus 28,329, a gain of 4.3 per cent.
Sloik blamed the lower production on a bad season that saw too many flooded or waterlogged fields in spring and early summer, followed by a severe drought in August and an early (mid-September) frost. The latter prevented processing potatoes, which need a longer growing season than fresh potatoes, from bulking up.
Though 2011 was a year to forget for processing-potato growers, it was an OK year for fresh-potato growers because their crops were harvested before the worst of the drought hit, said Peak of the Market board chairman Keith Kuhl.
Kuhl, of Winkler's Southern Manitoba Potato Co. Ltd., said the co-operative has more than enough potatoes on hand to meet local demand until the next fresh-potato crop is ready next August.
He agreed shortages elsewhere could put upward pressure on retail prices here. However, like Sloik, he said he doesn't think there will be significant increases.