Much of Prince Edward Island’s potato industry is concentrated in the central part of the province, in rural Queens and eastern Prince Counties. You will find many of our bigger potato farms there, in the gently rolling hills, as well as the massive Cavendish Farms processing plant, located near Kensington.
It’s a region often referred to as the potato belt.
If you lay an electoral map over this part of the province, you will discover it’s comprised of four contiguous districts, adjacent to one another, and in the recent provincial election the ruling Liberals lost all four of those districts.
The Liberals lost the potato belt.
In fact, I can’t recall an Island political party losing all of those rural seats and still forming a government.
It was a stunning defeat for a Liberal government whose policies were heavily influenced by potato farmers and their industry. I believe it was a strong message to the new administration of Premier Wade MacLauchlan that unsustainable, dangerous farming practices are unacceptable to the majority of Island voters.
Islanders will live with the growing and processing of potatoes, however, they are now insisting clean air and water, and healthy rivers and streams, are of utmost importance to their families and communities.
The potato belt districts were all won by sizable margins.
Conservative candidate Jamie Fox took Borden-Kinkora. That district was previously represented by George Webster, Minister of Agriculture in the Ghiz government. The losing Liberal candidate Ramona Roberts operates a chain of small convenience stores. Her husband, Austin, is a prominent potato farmer in the Kinkora area.
Roberts, I am told, was handpicked by the Liberal leadership.
Next door in Kelly’s Cross-Cumberland, Minister of Community Services and Seniors Valerie Docherty, was crushed by Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, whose platform included a new and more environmentally sustainable vision for Island agriculture.
Docherty’s husband is chairman of the PEI Potato Board and a major potato grower.
In the district of Kensington-Malpeque, where the Cavendish Farms processing plant employs hundreds, Liberal candidate James Montgomery failed to hold the seat vacated by former Minister of Finance Wes Sheridan.
During his time in Cabinet, Sheridan had strongly supported the interests of the Irving-owned Cavendish Farms plant as well as the potato industry in general.
But it was in the district of Rustico-Emerald where the potato industry establishment suffered its strongest rebuke, and where future influence around the Cabinet table by the potato industry was denied. Bertha Campbell, an award winning farmer and staunch defender of current farming practices, was defeated by Conservative Brad Trivers.
I have been told Premier Wade MacLauchlan was particularly disappointed with her loss, perhaps having pencilled her in as the next Minister of Agriculture.
When he assumed leadership of the Liberal Party a few months ago, MacLauchlan spoke about the 10 lenses through which he would view policy options. In other words, the criteria for defining sound and appropriate government decisions and action.
To the surprise and dismay of many Islanders, environmental sustainability and protection were not among those policy lenses, and during the recent election campaign, MacLauchlan tiptoed around environmental issues.
In the televised debates, he outlined a lengthy and vague process for the adoption of a provincial Water Act, and the premier appears open to lifting the present moratorium on deep water wells, if science supports such action.
Unfortunately, current technologies don’t allow us to map the sources or movement of fresh water underground and therefore, at best, the science government musters will be dubious.
The potato industry contributes hundreds of millions to the Island economy each year, and no one should disregard that economic impact, or the livelihood of potato farmers. But in this age of mechanization and larger acreages, the demographic reality is farmers now constitute a small part of the rural population, and their voting power is far weaker than it once was.
I hope our new Liberal government does the political calculus here.
I realize that de-constructing elections can be complicated.
But it may be that losing the four potato belt districts for the Liberals had something to do with government policy, that until now, has favoured the potato industry, at the expense of farming practices that are both unsustainable and environmentally destructive.
It may have had something to do with Islanders’ fear that someday there will be potatoes in the pot to boil, but no water to boil them in, or even worse, no water from the tap that’s fit to drink.
One of Rob Lantz’s finest moments during the recent campaign was his decisive commitment not to license further deep well irrigation systems.
When our three new potato belt Conservative MLAs join their caucus, and take their seats in the legislature, they will have an opportunity to give their leader’s position some meaning.
The fourth potato belt member, Mr Bevan-Baker, put forward the most rationale and sophisticated plan for the future of Island agriculture of all the party leaders, and after all, he is Green.
Premier MacLauchlan urgently needs to find an environmental lens, and put it to use, before the Million Acre Farm begins to resemble an industrial wasteland.