BY TREVOR NICHOLS
Local potato farmers are feeling “left out in the dark” after the provincial government promised $500 000 to the Frito Lay plant in New Minas.
August 9 Municipal Relations Minister Ramona Jennex praised the plant for supporting local farmers, saying they buy 30 per cent of their potatoes from the Annapolis Valley.
Jack Whitney is a valley farmer who grows potatoes for the plant. He says Frito-Lay is not using as many local potatoes as they could.
There has been a “downhill trend” in local potato production for years, he says. Farmers no longer want to grow for the plant because “there's just too much risk.”
Several farmers recall being told by the plant it was dropping its smaller contracts, and switching to larger farms with larger contracts in the early 90s.
Speaking for Frito-Lay's parent company PepsiCo, Sheri Morgan says, “there was never a situation where contracts were cancelled based on volume.”
However, when Frito-Lay took over from Hostess, the plant was using mostly local potatoes. After the change, the number of local growers dwindled.That was the “turning point from good to bad,” says Arthur Woolaver.
The Canning farmer used to grow for the plant, but stopped about three years ago. Growing for Frito-Lay is risky business, he says, because there is no guarantee they will take your product.
Before the plant was under Frito-Lay control farmers could deliver their potatoes to the plant, collect their paycheque and be done with it.
However, farmers eventually became responsible for the potatoes “until they got to the fryer.” Growers carried the risk when the spuds were in storage, even though the plant handled storage and charged the farmers' a fee for it.
Morgan says she can't comment on old practices, because they happened so long ago. Farmers are free to use their own storage.
Another difficulty for farmers, Woolaver adds, is having to grow specific kinds of potatoes: varieties that are hard to handle and quick to bruise. This means that more of their crop ends up getting rejected at the plant.
Under the current system, there is too much risk: hundreds of thousands of dollars of potatoes could be rejected and suddenly become the responsibility of the farmer to get rid of.
Woolaver says he stopped growing for the plant because every year there seemed to be more costs falling to his farm. Without knowing if he could sell his potatoes it was not worth it.
“They never wanted to pay a good price,” he recalls.
He did have a contract with Frito-Lay, but Woolaver says, “it didn't mean much.” If the plant didn't want to use his crops “they would always seem to find a way not to take them.”
Woolaver remembers they once rejected his crop because of a “taste issue,” when they came out of storage.
The farmer says he and many other farmers would love to start growing for the plant again, because it can be very profitable. But under the current circumstances, he says he “just wouldn't make any money.”
Donna Crawford, administrative coordinator for Horticulture Nova Scotia, says Frito-Lay's claim they use 30% local potatoes is “wrong.”
According to Crawford, there are only four growers in Nova Scotia who produce for the plant, and they only sell to them three or four months a year. For the other eight or nine months, all the plant's potatoes come from farms in PEI. The plant also takes PEI potatoes during the three months local farmers are providing them.
“It doesn't matter how many [potatoes] go to the plant now. The bottom line is because of business practices by Frito Lay there are only 9 growers left in Nova Scotia, and only four of them grow for the plant,” she says.
On top of that, Crawford adds, last year PepsiCo didn't take product from two of the four remaining local suppliers.
Morgan disagrees. She maintains the 30 per cent number is based on Frito-Lays contracts and is accurate. The company looks for growers who can produce a product that meets their standards, she says. “We're committed to purchasing potatoes from Nova Scotia if growers can meet our raw material criteria.”
Each spring Frito-Lay meets with the Nova Scotia Potato Marketing Board to let them know exactly what they are looking for, and they will consider any grower who can produce the product they need.
She says the company doesn't discriminate based on how much a farmer can grow; it takes small quantities of potatoes from farmers right here in Nova Scotia.
“Whatever the numbers are, there are a lot of unhappy farmers out there,” Crawford argues.
“Before long, there won't be any [potato] growing here in the Valley,” Whitney adds.
Crawford, Whitney and many of the farmers on the Nova Scotia Potato Marketing Board are upset the government didn't consult them before promising money to the plant.
Whitney is on the board, and says the group would have recommended the money come with a promise the plant would buy from more local farmers.
“It doesn't sit right with growers in the valley.”