Prince Edward Island was first introduced to potatoes in 1758 when the British took over from the French. An ideal growing place for potatoes the potato harvest was 'a phenomenal success'. Soon, potatoes were being exported to other colonies, and in 1802, Lord Selkirk brought settlers from the Scottish highlands to the Orwell Bay area of the Island. Provided with potatoes to cultivate, the Scots survived almost exclusively on a diet of potatoes and cod for a few years, and by 1806 John Stewart was quoted as saying: 'potatoes are raised in great abundance, and in no country better'.
Faced with land covered almost entirely by a dense forest, the settlers who arrived on Prince Edward Island had to clear land tree by tree to make room for their farms. Often it would take several years to get their fields completely clear of tree stumps. Making as much of their land as they could, they were forced to plant their crops among the stumps while they were still at work clearing out the fields. Because the potatoes took little care or attention, the land owners were free to focus on the development of their farms. In 1822 a man named Walter Johnstone described the potato planting among tree stumps and the piles of soil over the potatoes as resembling 'mole hills'.
In 1805, statistics showed that out of 10,000 acres of farm land on PEI, 15% was devoted to potatoes. This percentage increased over time, and by 1820 over 40,000 bushels of potatoes were being sent as far away as the West Indies. By the '40s this number had increased to 124,000. Exports kept increasing until 1845, when the Island was hit by the same blight that caused famine in Ireland. The modern potato industry in PEI eventually became world famous, beginning in the 1920s after two new varieties of potatoes were introduced: the Irish Cobbler variety and the Green Mountain variety.
In the 1920s, potato acreage in PEI almost doubled, with yields tripling. The beginning of a period of cooperation between federal and provincial governments resulted in the development of the seed potato industry and the control of potato diseases. Realizing that with the small size of the Island, scientists could familiarize themselves with all of its potato farms. This, along with the Island's cold winters, made disease and pest control and prevention much easier. These advantages of the Island's size and isolation have resulted in exceptionally high quality potatoes. Today, no seed potatoes are able to leave the Island without the certification of government inspectors.
The 1950s brought around the introduction of large-scale mechanization to potato farming on Prince Edward Island. The result: more potato acreage, less individual potato growers. Today, PEI's largest number of the acres used for the cultivating potatoes are found in our area, Prince County (the western part of the Island).
Today, Prince Edward Island ranks first in the production of potatoes in Canada. It grows just over 30% of Canadian production, and is the second largest exporter of seed potatoes in the world. Exported all around the world to places like Argentina, Greece, Italy, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Spain, the Island potato industry is now world famous!
The potato is the foundation crop for Prince Edward Island’s agricultural industry. There have been few industries that have left as prominent a mark on the province as the potato industry. Going back to when communities used to gather to help with the potato harvest one farm at a time, the crop and the industry have been a large part of the Island’s social structure and identity. In the past it has provided a stable base for the economy and a rallying point for each resident of the province. Most Islanders, if asked to comment on something that we do here that is superior to anywhere else in the world, would be sure to answer with “growing potatoes.” The “Northern Vigour” of the crop has made it very desirable all over the world as a seed producer and the quality has made the PEI potato an affordable and nutritious addition to many tables.
There are very few people in the province of Prince Edward Island that are not affected either directly or indirectly by the potato industry. Families and communities depend on the industry for jobs and a source of revenue for those in communities who provide a service or sell goods. The industry is vital to the economy of Prince Edward Island. For example, the processing plant at Cavendish Farms is just below the provincial government in the number of people it employs. In its absence, money from the sale of the crop and incomes from the many aspects of the industry would need to be replaced by another source in order for the province to remain at its current level of prosperity. Capital that is brought to the province from other Canadian provinces and around the world by the sale of seed and table stock potatoes provides the region with an influx of money that would otherwise not be there. When there is trouble in the industry, it is felt throughout every part of the province, not just the agriculture industry. Hard times felt by the potato farmers trickle down to virtually all Islanders.
Although there are far fewer farms than there were in the early days of the industry it still has an impact on as many Islanders. In 1940, there were more than 10,000 growers on the Island whereas in 2002 there were only 550. With modern technology, this comparatively small number of farmers are working three times more land and supplying an industry that employs people from one tip of the province to the other. So, the landscape and look of the industry and the number of people actually farming potatoes has changed, its importance and impact on the Island has only continued to grow.
The potato industry not only provides revenue and jobs to the province, it also gives Islanders a sense of pride and identity. For generations, potatoes have been a part of most Islanders’ lives. Each small family farm grew a small crop of potatoes which made it possible for the families to survive by eating the nutritious crop and in some cases even prosper by selling the potatoes that remained after the family had taken what they needed. The huge industry that has grown up around the potato harvest is a very prominent part of Island society. It is celebrated with songs, festivals and many namesake businesses such as “Spud Isle Realty.” Islanders rally around performers such as music legend “Stompin’ Tom Connors” who celebrated the potato in song with “Bud the Spud.” This song describes the export of potatoes from the province and how it is a large robust product unequalled by any other potato-producing region in the world. “And the spuds are big on the back of that rig, and they’re from Prince Edward Island.”
Potatoes are celebrated at the “PEI Potato Blossom Festival” held in O’Leary, PEI each year in July to mark the time when the potato plants fill the fields in full blossom. The festival has events including the chance to taste recipes, the awarding of “young farmer of the year,” the crowning of Miss Potato Blossom, a parade and fireworks. O’Leary is also home to another tribute to the potato industry. The Prince Edward Island Potato Museum celebrates the potato and provides visitors with a broad range of industry-based information and fun. It also boasts the world’s largest potato, which stands 14 feet high and is located in front of the museum.
The potato industry has been an intricate part of Island life for generations. It has seen many changes and innovations and caused much worry and turmoil due to various issues related to international trade and scientific scrutiny. The industry has survived many hard times including the same Potato Blight that ravaged Ireland between 1845 and 1851, the Great Depression and two world wars. In recent years, the potato industry on Prince Edward Island has seen some very difficult times. There is not one single culprit that is causing the worry and hard times in the industry. There are many small changes to the industry as well as some large issues that have combined to form the obstacles that have lead to the low demand and low prices for PEI potatoes. These issues range from the new low carb fad diets that have become so popular to new regulations in marketing and selling potatoes, to the loss of markets due to trade disputes with the United States. Regardless of the causes, the industry is feeling the pinch. Potatoes are selling for as little as $1.29 Canadian for 10 pounds with the farmers only receiving little more then $0.50 a bag.
Regardless of what the future brings for the PEI potato industry, there will always be a place in the hearts of many Islanders that takes an immense amount of pride in the achievements of the potato industry on PEI. Many have spent their entire lives working in the industry that is so important to the PEI economy. The industry will always be remembered in song and festival and will have an honourable place in the history of Prince Edward Island.