Potato processors enter water debate as stakes increase

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A farmer irrigates his field in western Queens County in this Guardian file photo.

Farmers face more pressure to fulfil contracts with proper quality, size for french fry markets

The stakes are being raised in the divisive debate on deep-water wells for supplemental irrigation of potatoes on P.E.I. Now, it’s about processing contracts, the ability of growers to fulfil those contracts and the future of our two major french fry processors. Last week, the spectre of Cavendish Farms or McCains Foods reducing their contracts or even remaining in the province was raised publicly during a meeting of a legislative standing committee.

There have already been warnings from processors that the demand for P.E.I. french fries is decreasing because of additional competition and supply from other market areas. There are suggestions that contracts will be reduced while processors are starting negotiations with a lower price offer over last year. This doesn’t bode well for contractors who grow over 60 per cent of the Island’s potato acreage.

Outside of the agricultural sector, there is almost universal opposition to lifting a 10-year moratorium on deep-water wells. Even inside the farming community, the NFU is opposed to any changes. Other farmers, including some potato growers, are either opposed or neutral on the issue.  

Like Daniel thrown into the lion’s den, three farmer representatives from the Innovative Farm Group (IFG) appeared before the standing committee. IFG represents eight family farm operations in central P.E.I. who grow 4,000 acres of potatoes on a rotational production of 12,000 acres. Some of the farms already have deep-water wells, others use ponds fed by wells and the rest use a pond and surface water mix. If irrigation is needed, deep-water wells are the most efficient option, IFG representatives told the committee. Without the ability to guarantee quality, farmers risk losing processing and table markets where even one dry week can have a significant impact on yield. If Island growers cannot supply a certain quality and size of potato, processors have options with growers and plants in other provinces or states where opposition to deep-water wells is limited.

P.E.I. potato growers suggest the industry would be in jeopardy without some relief from deep-water wells, with catastrophic economic results for farmers, rural communities and the province in general. Irrigation will provide an important tool to help sustain family farms for the next generation and beyond.  Farmers said all the right things to the committee. “We live in rural P.E.I. with our children, our families, our friends and neighbours, in and around the farms that we would be irrigating. Thus we are very committed to managing this resource to be as gentle on our environment and as beneficial to our environment as possible. Better plant growth from irrigation means less fertilizer and fewer pesticides due to less stress on the plant.”

The standing committee and government have difficult tasks ahead as they must decide if compromise is possible to protect our water resource even if science supports additional deep-water wells and thus offers farmers a chance to remain competitive in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

Investment to pay off?

There is always a feeling of unease to see taxpayers’ dollars spent on attracting a multimillionaire singer to P.E.I. The province, through P.E.I. 2014 Inc., is spending $250,000 to help bring Shania Twain to Charlottetown for an Aug. 30 concert. The special concert will launch Founders Week festivities to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Charlottetown Conference that led to Canadian Confederation in 1867.

Criticism was expected about how the province could so readily find $250,000 to support this concert. In these tight, fiscal times, the optics are not great. But the province is committed to commemorating the 1864 conference in a big way. And Twain is a huge star. One estimate is that 28,000 tickets sold will generate approximately $500,000 in tax revenue. If correct, the investment will result in a net profit for the province. In that light, the investment seems worthwhile.

Organizations: Innovative Farm Group, Canadian Confederation

Geographic location: P.E.I., Iceland, Charlottetown

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Recent comments

  • The real story
    March 12, 2014 - 20:08

    Not many PEI potato farmers will irrigate. There's no moratorium in New Brunswick, and not many potato farmers over there irrigate. Irrigation systems are expensive and margins on processing contracts are thin. Who's really behind this push? And why has the potato industry leadership approached it in such a poor fashion that has stirred up bad feelings and mistrust for farmers? Cavendish Farms hired Chris Leclair, but somehow the Potato Marketing Board became the face of this issue and is taking all the negative publicity. Who's running this campaign? Why are all potato farmers getting tarred with this issue? I'm tired of it and I think the Potato Marketing Board should ask the potato farmers that it supposedly represents what they think. The three farmers who presented to the Standing Committee are credible, good farmers, but the poor way that this issue has been managed by the board makes all farmers appear to be suspect. I would like to know who's really driving the irrigation bus and how many potato farmers are really happy with what's going on.

  • george
    March 12, 2014 - 15:48

    you farmers are all for irvings if you cant grow patatoes the smart way get out