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Government fails to see eye-to-eye with farmers over potatoes

Potato plants

The Government has refuted claims by farmers about a potato shortage, and maintained that measures need to be in place to protect the environment and Bermuda agriculture.

While the Bermuda Farmers Association said that a “flawed” permit process and government red tape resulted in seeds not arriving on the island until December, the Ministry of Home Affairs said the seeds arrived two days earlier than in 2021 and nine days later than 2020.

A ministry spokesman said: “Feedback on the quality of this year's seed potatoes was outstanding, so it will be interesting to see the results when the crop is harvested.

“However, comparing harvests at this stage is challenging as the crop is still in the ground.”

The spokesman said two containers of seed potatoes were imported this year – the same as last year.

“The number of bags imported is based on the amounts ordered by participating farmers, which amounted to 1,056 bags of potatoes,” the spokesman said. “The amount farmers could import was not limited by the Government.

“In comparison, 1,430 bags were brought in the previous year for the 2021 crop, which did not include Yukon golds and fingerlings potatoes.

“The main difference this year is two of the leading commercial farmers, who usually plant potatoes, decided not to purchase from the farmer importing the seed potatoes. Eight commercial farmers bought potatoes from this year's shipment.

“Also, every farmer had the opportunity on at least three occasions to purchase directly from the importing farmer, an improvement over previous years when seed potatoes were sold only to selected farmers.”

The spokesman said that in 2022 three farmers expressed an interest in importing seed potatoes and last June the Plant Protection Laboratory met with two farmers and offered guidance.

“The department advised the two farmers to seek an alternative supplier to meet Bermuda's entry requirements,” he said. “Unfortunately, they were not able to meet the requirements for several reasons.

“However, a second party sought a supplier of seed potatoes, applied to import, and successfully imported them under the same conditions, despite a shorter turnaround period.”

The spokesman said that while delays are “expected”, the most significant delay this year was because of the need to get the results of tests to ensure the shipment was clean.

“The challenge stems from the need to test the leafy part of the potato for specific diseases,” he said. “Testing an actively growing leaf is a relatively quick process. The leafy portion is typically cut off around Labour Day, as the crop is readied for harvesting overseas.

“However, if the leaf is unavailable, specimens of potato tuber samples must be induced to produce leaves, which must then be tested. This testing is done in overseas laboratories and takes time for the plant to grow.

“To ensure prompt results, testing of plants should occur before Labour Day and requires the importer to submit timely applications so that the laboratory can work with the necessary overseas entities to test the potatoes they want to import.”

He added the ministry will notify all importers of the need to test the leafy portion of the plant moving forward to limit future delays.

The spokesman highlighted the importance of the testing to prevent the introduction of viruses or fungus that could have significant environmental impacts.

“The various viruses affecting other crops' yield can decimate hundreds of ornamentals and the potato wart fungus – this fungus is visually unsightly and can destroy a potato crop by preventing tuber production,” he said.

“It remains dormant in a field for over 40 years and has no known treatment. For this and many other reasons, DENR will take every step necessary to protect agriculture while reasonably supporting the needs of our agricultural community.”

The spokesman added that regulations about the importation of strawberries has been disseminated.

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Published March 01, 2023 at 7:39 am (Updated March 01, 2023 at 7:39 am)

Government fails to see eye-to-eye with farmers over potatoes

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