Ian Petrie

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The easy thing for the organization representing organic farmers would have been to keep its head down. Why risk its members’ credibility, especially with customers, when access to irrigation had settled into a longstanding divide: large industrial farmers vs. everyone else? We should be grateful that they did.

PEI’s Certified Organic Producers Co-op made a detailed presentation on irrigation both to its members in December, and more recently to the government’s Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability last month. It challenges both sides of this debate to think a little harder, ask better questions.

To those who want to see the moratorium fixed forever in the new Water Act, it clearly states that the occasional dry year now comes annually, and all farmers, organic and otherwise, can’t continue to see yields shrink 25% to 30% every year and survive. To the farming community, it says this isn’t a matter of just turning on a tap, but instead using research and regulations to prove proper management of both water resources and soil health.

These ideas will make both sides uncomfortable. The moratorium has been a reliable line in the sand for those opposed to the commercial production, let’s be honest, of potatoes destined for the commodity french fry market. A moratorium has hard edges, and enjoys a bumper-sticker simplicity and warning for politicians.

It’s why Premier Dennis King keeps asking the standing committee to recommend doing research on irrigation because that would imply all-party support. It’s also why the standing committee members refuse to do this. No one wants to be held responsible for ending the 19 year long ban on farmers drilling high capacity wells, even just for research. All the committee has done is expand the moratorium to other businesses as well.

Major farm organizations are desperate for the moratorium to end, but won’t like the idea of stiffer crop rotation rules, and soil health requirements as the cost of getting access to water. They argue that farmers are making a good faith effort to rebuild soils, but it will take years for all to get back to some mandated standard, years farmers simply don’t have as summer droughts have become the norm.

Organic farmers come at this from a unique perspective. Their business is dependent on healthy productive soils because they can’t reach for commercial fertilizer, or synthetic pesticides to maintain quality and yields, but they too are having to live with the costs and discouragement of weeks without rain in the middle of the growing season. What they’re saying is that even those farmers with superior soil health are suffering from drought.

Organic farmers are also much more tolerant of regulations and oversight than other farmers. They have to fill out endless amounts of paperwork, and prepare for annual inspections to maintain their certified status. It’s how they build credibility with their customers. They obviously think conventional farmers would build more trust with the general public too if soil health standards were strengthened and enforced.

The COPC presentation made other important points: the moratorium had made us lazy, that as long as it was in place many considered the water resource protected, when it isn’t. The farmers cited the damage to the Winter River watershed by over pumping by Charlottetown, unregulated holding ponds, unused nitrate fertilizer leaching into aquifers in the fall because of the lack of rain, little data collected from the current use of high capacity wells and its impact on ecosystems, little knowledge of how close to the coast wells could be drilled before there’s a risk of saltwater intrusion, and so on. The organic farmers are calling for much more research into all these matters.

These farmers also use the word “management” a lot. I would argue that at this moment, when a way forward is needed quickly, it’s a more useful term than measurement. How will farmers manage rotations and cultivation to improve soil health? How will they manage irrigation to limit the need for, and maintain the quality of, water? How will they manage application of fertilizers to limit leaching of nitrates? The organic farmers suggest making these management practices specific to each watershed, each farm, and forming the basis for allowing more irrigation.

There are important unanswered questions as well in the presentation: How to ensure a fair distribution of irrigation water if it’s allowed so that it’s not just large highly capitalized operations that have access? Should farmers have to pay for water? During shortages who gets water first? (it suggests people, then agriculture, then industry, etc.)

The moratorium may never end, but it won’t be because some of the most responsible farmers in the province haven’t tried to make a case that it should.

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