Island farmer says P.E.I. needs farm surcharge system

Steve Sharratt
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Sprouting ideas

Fresh produce is just one thing on the organic menu at Margie Loo and Dave Blum’s Elderflower Organic Farm on the Selkirk Road in Valley.

VALLEY — Growing stuff just comes naturally to Margie Loo.

But mung beans and sunflower seeds aren’t the only things sprouting in her country greenhouse these days.

Loo has some fresh ideas about the line in the sand being drawn between farming and the environment and she has been planting those ideas wherever she can.

“It’s time to erase the battle lines and recognize that we are all part of the same community here,” she said.

She may be an organic farmer, but Loo, who grew up in the red dirt of Springfield in central P.E.I., isn’t preaching the sermon to turn the million-acre farm into an organic paradise.

“I am not here to say that everyone should switch to organic farming tomorrow. Farmers are expected to produce a crop every year and it must be pretty much perfect,’’ she told a recent public forum.

“Most farmers sell into the open market place where there is no customer loyalty and prices are fixed by others in the race for the lowest.”

That’s not to say Loo — pronounced Low — wouldn’t like to see the expansion of organic and the decline of pesticide dependent farming, but she knows all too well the intricacies of such a task.

These days, the owner of Elderflower Organics, tucked away in south eastern P.E.I., is espousing the benefits of a food surcharge system.

“We have a surcharge on tobacco and alcohol because of the related issues ... why not on food to help create a fund and move towards a healthier environment?”

And how do you create such a fund? Loo suggests a one per cent surcharge on grocery store food that isn’t grown organically.

“That would mean for every $100 you spend on groceries that aren’t organic, you would pay $1.00. In one year that could raise enough to provide $100 an acre for 100,000 acres.”

It’s called an ecological services payment for delivering ecologically sound farm practices, improving tilth (organic matter), and eliminating the most toxic agricultural chemicals out of the system towards certified organic practices.

Now before you spill your coffee and start ranting against the idea of the public having to pay extra to improve soil quality, Loo says it’s a small charge with huge paybacks.

“It costs more to grow crops in an ecologically sound manner than farmers are being paid,’’ she says. “And the most visible example is our increase in health care costs. Better farm practices will improve the health of our whole community.”

Take our closest neighbour to the south. In Maine, supermarkets are required to have several rows of products grown in the state and sold at fair price levels to farmers. Consumers then have the opportunity to pay more to local farmers.

“Farmers aren’t the problem,’’ says Alan Hicken, former chair of the Environmental Advisory Board. “Primary producers need to be paid fairly for their products.”

Hicken, also a guest speaker at the public forum, said there is no doubt changes must be made.

“We need to provide incentives to move away from pesticides, and disincentives for using pesticides,” he said. “The organic matter in P.E.I. soil is at critical low levels and climate change and dramatic changes in rainfall will continue to cause problems in the future.”

Hicken, who lives in South Pinette, said he would like to see a ‘P.E.I. state of the environment report’ published regularly in a peer-reviewed format to track real data on the subject.

Loo’s surcharge idea would create two separate income streams for farms — one from farm sales and the other from environmental services payments. She said there could be a sliding scale in which those performing the most ecological services would receive the most per acre for their efforts. Farmers would be able to take the most toxic chemicals and most vulnerable farm land out of service and rewarded for doing so.

“My (late) brother Raymond was always a great inspiration for me and one thing he said stuck with me — The question isn’t if we can make the Island organic, the question is do we want to?”

The surcharge idea is a model already used in many parts of the world and is tied to clear environmental targets, like protection of watersheds, increasing organic matter and improving bio-diversity conservation.

The public forum she was addressing was hosted by Pesticide Free P.E.I. and Loo barely mentioned the word.

“I didn’t say much about pesticides because it is clear they can’t be separated from the whole farm system,” she said in an interview. “Chemical-based agriculture uses a prescription model and converting land stripped of organic matter and microbial life back to biologically active soil takes time.”

Hicken told the public forum the balance of life hinges on the protection of the environment,

“If we don’t have our health, then wealth doesn’t mean much.”

Organizations: Environmental Advisory Board

Geographic location: P.E.I., Springfield, Maine South Pinette

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Recent comments

  • David MacNearney
    March 09, 2015 - 10:26

    This is an excellent idea and it should be expanded to all locally grown products. We farmers are all stewards of the environment, some more so than others. Payments should be tied to demonstrable environmental benefits. Organic farms use natural pesticides and if they are shown to be less environmentally damaging than synthetic pesticides, payments should reflect this. If one traditional farmer uses practices that is more beneficial his neighbour, they should also be rewarded for this. Of course the devil is in the details and robust science should direct the cost/benefit analysis not an unfounded belief that one particular type of chemical or farming practice is better than another. Facts should trump beliefs.

  • John
    March 08, 2015 - 14:15

    On the surface the suggestion has some merit but with further reflection it does not stand up. The majority of people who buy organic food are upper middle class who can afford to be choosy about what they eat. The folks in the lower income brackets do not have that luxury and this scheme penalizes people who can't afford to eat organic. Organic is easier on the environment but nutritionally there is no difference between organic and conventional food.

    • Deborah
      March 09, 2015 - 11:11

      John, yes the 1% surcharge needs some further reflection, I believe one way that it could work would be if the food suppliers or the food dispensers paid the surcharge. However, the rest of your comments are very funny. I am the lowest of the low income and I, for the most part only eat organic and for the most part, only buy from local farmers. I also purchase other certified organic products in grocery stores, I rarely see an upper middle class person shopping there with me, mostly the lower class, like myself, or lower middle and middle middle incomes. There is a community that surrounds purchasing no chemical pesticide, no chemical fertilizer, no GMO foods, those who are like minded individuals. But yes, we need a food system where those on financial assistance or anyone on tight budgets can afford to purchase whole foods that are "certified organic", as well as other items of basic need.

  • Peter Johnsson
    March 08, 2015 - 12:19

    She said there could be a sliding scale in which those performing the most ecological services would receive the most per acre for their efforts. Good plan ... and considering the fact that she (Margie Loo) is an "organic farmer", already performing the most ecological service, I can guess who the bulk of the money goes to.

    • Ed Gallant
      March 09, 2015 - 12:03

      So Peter, what is it you have a problem with? Is it the fact of the surcharge or that Ms Loo wll get her share of the extra revenue? I believe your envy of Ms Loo is interfering wth your judgement.

  • all for it
    March 08, 2015 - 12:02

    We pay major tax dollars for cleaning up fish kills, enforcement officers, dead rivers... taxing non-organic food is a great idea, especially on PEI where we are doused in pesticides.

  • Green Lantern
    March 08, 2015 - 10:15

    Excellent idea for Wade to pursue.

  • Typical, typical..
    March 08, 2015 - 09:13

    According the ignorant whiners, the whole Island must go organic at any cost, even if it is not at all feasible. However, when someone suggests an alternative, they begin whining over paying more. Welcome to PEI: Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Can't win. If you have nothing to contribute but your uneducated opinion, then please don't contribute anything at all.

  • rob
    March 08, 2015 - 08:39

    If people did proper research and knew the facts about industrialized farming vs organic farming. there would be no bigmouths on here ridiculing this idea. this is studies that prove organic farming can produce more food than industrial or mono cultural farming.

  • Simple Logic
    March 07, 2015 - 20:16

    It's very simple. People who want pesticides on their food should have to pay more for it. If you want your food plane with nothing on it you should pay less. Just like in the restaurants.

  • My Thought
    March 07, 2015 - 19:45

    How refreshing to hear a great idea like this one that Ms Loo has come up with. I would certainly be willing to support it. It make total sense and it's only those who are "in the dark" who would disagree. We have to think ahead and this would be a great start.

  • Darcie Lanthier
    March 07, 2015 - 19:11

    I had the pleasure of hearing Margie Loo speak at the Public Forum. She has the same calm sensible outlook that we all so admired in Raymond and she is absolutely correct. We need to stop harming our Province and start taking steps to ensure that our children and grandchildren will still have clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe and a reason to skip school on April 15th. There is an extra cost to fossil fuels and pesticides, this cost should be paid at the cash register rather than being downloaded onto the next generation. Thank you Margie for having the courage to speak up.

  • Bill Kays
    Bill Kays
    March 07, 2015 - 15:37

    Priorities - priorities - I do not need anymore taxes. I do not need more governmental interference in my life with more laws and regulations. I think before we fix farming we had better fix the government, don't you?

    • Ed Gallant
      March 08, 2015 - 10:49

      Bill.. If you stopped and thought about it you might see that it has merit. It is a way to get more income into the hands of organic farmers thereby enabling them to sell product at a cost most can afford, all without the use of pesticides. One of the reasons most people don't buy organic is the cost. We must do something about the amount of chemicals used in agriculture. The Loos are a family that have done more for the enviornment than any others and are arguably the only ones looking after the land in a proper manner.Give it some thought.

  • Randy Campbell
    March 07, 2015 - 13:01

    The two statements I agree with most in this article are (1) “It’s time to erase the battle lines and recognize that we are all part of the same community here,” ... and (2) “We need to provide incentives to move away from pesticides, and disincentives for using pesticides." A surcharge is one way to do it. I personally think that is a great idea. Nevertheless, there may be other ways to provide better incentives, and together I'm hopeful that we can figure it out.

  • hal
    March 07, 2015 - 12:58

    People who buy cigarettes pay extra because the public needs to pay for their extra health care costs. People who buy non-organic food (though I admit there are issues with organic certification, and some fishy loopholes), should pay more for the cost the public pays for fish kills, nitrates in wells, increased cancer rates, loss of animal habitat, costs to aquaculture etc etc etc. It makes sense.

    March 07, 2015 - 11:46

    Organic food has been a dismally bogus failure. Allegations by activists that organic pesticide-free food will someday replace conventional food are ludicrous. Even more ludicrous is the expectation that pest control products will someday and somehow no longer be necessary for agriculture. Any restriction on the use of pest control products would result in a substantial reduction in harvests and a related substantial increase in food costs, lack of affordable food, huge increases in starvation, and tens of thousands of additional deaths among the poor of the world.

    • Luke
      March 07, 2015 - 17:13

      That's just not true. Small organic farms provide more food/acre than industrial farms... BUT they require more labour/acre. The only advantage is that industrial farming requires less person-power. But, we pay for that with the destruction of animal habitat and soil quality, and water/air pollution.

    • Your Wrong
      March 07, 2015 - 19:40

      You are spreading lies. A 2013 publication from the UN Commission on Trade and Development stated that small scale farming is the only way to feed the world. We need to stop interfering with what the earth does best and that's create healthy growth. It's YOUR expectation that your food needs to be pristine, unblemished and have the appearance of being made of wax that's problem.

  • reality
    March 07, 2015 - 11:02

    sounds like organic fertilizer to me

  • Sami
    March 07, 2015 - 08:42

    OMG a food TAX !...sad, sad, sad that some folks luv sticking their hands in other peoples pockets. No need to tax the poor and middle class anymore.....if you have that much extra money create a fund and VOLUNTARILTY donate it DO NOT steal from someone else for your pet project. Geez the nerve. Expecting consumers to pay for farmers with someone else's money to fallow land for years for a pipe dream of 1878 soil quality ? Why don't you just buy your own farm land, let it sit for 10-30 years without income then raise real organic, not the fake stuff on tainted land...........Try tackling the legions of Irving relatives running their Corporate PEI chemical farms and also controlling land use through their TD Bank...or the big private growers addicted to Chem's to Grow.

    • Dotty.
      March 07, 2015 - 12:55

      We pay watershed groups to rebuild habitat, why not farmers? Cheap food prices are cheap because we have to pay for additional health care, and environmental cost. How much does a fish kill cost? How much do increased cancer rates cost? Paying farmers who rebuild our biosphere while they farm is definitely okay with me.

    • LA
      March 08, 2015 - 12:48

      Being as you can't even spell without textspeak, I'm convinced you aren't exactly educated on the issues facing both farmer and consumer.

  • Nancy
    March 07, 2015 - 06:52

    Wow! I sure hope people like this farm never get elected....Surcharge for what? The latest fish kill was with a so called Natural product but was very toxic to fish? So maybe Organic should have a surcharge as well? There is nothing wrong with the products that are being used but with some practices of the products. If your narrow mind was ever to be successful the average cost for our food would be ten times, gas would be ten times and those in need would only become more in need! Its narrow minds and views like this that government like to they can piggy back on it and introduce a new tax that wont go towards the "Environment" but to other departments!

    • Randy
      March 07, 2015 - 12:50

      Please keep your personal attacks out of it. It's a form of bullying, and has not place in civilized debate. It would be more respectable if you kept to criticizing the idea instead of the person.