Paul MacNeill

Doesn’t matter what you farm, the one constant, regardless of crop or commodity, is risk. But when you are a contract grower for a frozen potato producer there is more at play than Mother Nature.

Historically growing spuds for the frozen market nets a profitable living. The margins are tight, but there is a guaranteed buyer. The not so subtle pressure to buy the right brand of fertilizer or tractor raises eyebrows, but in the 40 plus years since PEI entered the industry our economy has grown and farms prospered, despite corporations like Cavendish Farms being notoriously tough in enforcing contract details that can make or break a growing season.

Many will argue economic benefit comes with a steep societal and environmental cost. Corporate potato farming is tough on the soil, there is no getting around it. The drive to achieve higher yields led to sustainable farming methods being ignored by some in the past. The corporate demand for access to deep water wells polarizes Islanders.

On top of it all, a growing number of Islanders unfairly look at farming with suspicion.

Later this winter, more than 100 Island farmers will sit down for two days with Cavendish Farms to negotiate a new contract. The corporation traditionally is the alpha male, but some believe that will change this negotiation cycle. Poor weather resulted in significant damage to crops in Idaho, Alberta, Manitoba and other areas last year. The PEI crop also suffered from reduced yield, size and colour. The New Annan plant, one of the largest private employers in the province, must import 120 million pounds of potatoes to meet demand for its frozen products. There is also increased competition for grower loyalty with a red hot table stock market that delivered a record year for some in 2019.

All of this is to say that 2020 may be a defining year for agriculture on PEI. Some are flippantly dismissive of the potato industry and wish it a quick demise. At best, it’s a reckless perspective. Regardless of your view, the industry generates thousands of jobs in rural communities and sustains jobs in urban centres. Tax dollars generated fund education, health care and, yes, even environmental protection. It’s made possible because we love fries, hash browns and tater tots. Change eating patterns and the agriculture sector will change with it. We’re already seeing baby steps in this direction.

What could spur major change is the King government’s review of the Lands Protection Act. A task force will soon hold Island wide consultations with an eye to tabling a report during the spring sitting of the legislature. It’s an ambitious timeline that may be difficult to meet. Regardless it will lay the groundwork for change.

King ran on a promise to close glaring loopholes that allow corporations to flaunt land ownership limits, including stopping the ability of related companies to bolster a mother corporation’s holdings. It was a loophole, created by the MacLauchlan government, that allowed an Irving related entity to purchase a 2,200 acre farm without IRAC approval.

Here’s the risk for the new government. Failure to keep its promise will kneecap government’s credibility and make it appear weak. Enforcement risks corporate blowback and threats of loss of investment and jobs. Cavendish implied as much in its pitch to win greater access to deep water wells.

This may very well be the first significant test of King’s leadership. Keeping his promise will be met with vocal opposition. It’s likely, however, that in such a fight the public would side with the premier. When you live on an Island, everyone knows land is a finite resource. It’s built into our DNA. And we know it’s the most precious inheritance we can pass on to future generations.

That’s why this is a classic political conundrum: Do you do what’s right for the future or do you cave to short term political calculations? That’s the question we may find an answer to in 2020.

Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited. He can be contacted at paul@peicanada.com

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