Sunday, 22 January 2012

Mashed Potatoes

This will read as criticism, but it really isn't.  I have many scars from thirty years of covering primary industries like farming and fishing FOR a general audience.  The mix of competing interests and messages, trying to determine what a story is and how to make it compelling, all conspire at times to hide what's really going on.

I was always guilty (and continue to be ) of paying too much attention to the interests of primary producers. My reasoning is that they matter in a province like PEI, and that virtually everywhere else in the media, from advertising to current affairs shows, and certainly the news,  urban consumers are the audience everyone is broadcasting too. Think of CBC buying the digital network Country Canada, and then turning it into Bold, an arts and culture channel. Think of how Radio Noons across the country have disappeared replaced with phone-in shows. Given the demographic changes in Canada, these are smart programming decisions. I stubbornly tried to fight the tide, and usually lost. No right or wrong here, just differences of opinion.

So think back to this weeks story about potato supplies on PEI.  "PEI Facing Potato Shortage" was the headline that ended up in newspapers,  radio and television newscasts across the country.  The first sentence in most of the print stories anyway was "Although store shelves are still full..... "    So let's look at what's really going on here:
1. The potato harvest is smaller than a year ago when there was a bumper crop, and, fortunately, huge export sales to Russia which suffered a drought.
2. Potatoes are being shipped more quickly than last year.
3. Potato supplies are low in many other areas.
4. Prices  are certainly profitable to farmers right now, but not gold-plated.

The information came out of an industry gathering near Charlottetown hosted by the United Potato Growers of Canada, and included industry and marketing experts from across North America.

Here's where messaging, and who that message is intended for, makes the story a little more complicated. The job of United Potato Growers is to make sure that farmers are getting the best possible price. It sounds simple and straightforward, but it's not.  By law United can't set the price , it can only provide information, and try to persuade the players in the marketing chain that prices should be higher, and that's a tough job. There are many, many sellers on PEI and elsewhere, and very few buyers. A handful of wholesalers and retailers dominate the food business (think Loblaws amd Sobeys)  and they have access to produce from virtually everywhere. They see their job as putting good quality produce on the shelves at the cheapest price. This works well for consumers, not so much for producers, but that's my my bias showing again.

What's really at play is a kind of psychological warfare:  once one of the hundreds of potato sellers agrees to a price, then everyone else is expected to match it, and it's hard to say no to sale. Producers constantly live with the anxirety that they won't sell their potatoes and will end up feeding them to cattle in the Spring. And it's THESE producer/dealers that the United officials were really trying to talk to this past week: "There's no over supply, don't worry about moving your crop,and make sure you're getting as much money as possible" Industry watchers know this kind of market situation doesn't come along very often, and farmers can't squander it.

So it was really more of a pep talk to farmers, than a warning to consumers.  Sobeys has just run a sale on potatoes and it was able to strong arm enough farmers to agree to take a lower price DESPITE the market conditions.  That's what United is trying to stop.

The irony in all of this of course is that most consumers would hardly notice the difference paying one or two dollars more for a bag of potatoes, but it's a world of difference at the farm gate. The big food retailers have become used to setting prices based on their needs (marketing flyers to get people into the stores), and they have enough economic power to get their way most of the time.  United is saying this is a moment when farmers can and should ask for more.

So if you're a consumer, don't worry there will always be potatoes on the shelves at reasonable prices. New potatoes from Florida will be coming soon (that will cost you I agree).  To my friends in the media whatever story I would have done on this would have probably missed the point too: "PEI Facing Potato Shortage"  is just too good a headline to pass up, and my explanation wouldn't have been as much fun. I'd probably have concluded that everyone who wants to buy potatoes is getting them, farmers are making some money,  so really there's just the right amount.

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