Once upon a time, people would stop along the roads of Prince Edward Island to wave and take photographs of farmers working in their fields.
They still do, but today it’s sometimes for reasons other than the pretty views and pastoral settings.
P.E.I. farmers are under the microscope, especially when the cellphones come out. Photos are taken, and routine chores like spraying the crop or even fertilizing the soil, appear on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
There’s a pesticide posse sweeping across the province these days, hunting down farming infractions and violations.
One recent incident was a video posted on YouTube, under the title “Weak enforcement of pesticide regulations in P.E.I.,” showing a Tignish area farmer spraying a crop in alleged high winds near Kildare.
The Department of Environment investigated, after the application had taken place, and found no violation.
A charge can only be laid if the pesticide officer is on site to witness the infraction, but there are only two pesticide officers covering the entire province.
According to some observers, people posting to social media sites only reflects the lack of public confidence in the province’s willingness - let alone ability - to enforce agriculture regulations.
Joan Diamond prefers life under the radar.
But that all changed this spring when she took a day off work to garden and the potato field next to her Fairview home, in rural Queens County, was sprayed.
“I had to take all my clothes off the line and go inside my house and shut the windows and doors for the entire day,” said Diamond, who lives near Rocky Point. “When I checked the government website, I discovered that I have no rights whatsoever. They protect the fish, but only because of bad publicity from fish kills, and yet there is zero protection for humans…how it that even remotely possible?”
The Island born mother - whose well water is afflicted with nitrates - is now the page master of the new Pesticide Free P.E.I. group on Facebook. It only started two months ago, but has more than 800 followers and increases daily.
“We are family friends with our farmer and we don’t blame him…farmers are stuck between a rock and a hard place and have to pay the bills,” she said. “But I’m scared for my family to go outside and even drink my own water.”
Pesticide Free P.E.I. wants government to change weak and unenforced pesticide regulations by offering incentives to farmers to phase out what they describe as a pesticide addiction “that spreads poison” on the land.
“Farmers know that people want pesticide-free food, air and water…that’s our right,’’ she said. “Times are changing and the P.E.I. government has to get behind it.”
Like police encouraging cellphone tips on drunk drivers, so goes the public vigilance squad on the prowl for agricultural infractions -- a situation farmers find frustrating.
“It has been said we are farming in a subdivision in P.E.I., and with social media, farmers are subjected to all sorts of harassment and misinformation spread by people who have no clue about agriculture,” said John Jamieson, executive director of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture.
Jamieson said one farmer had a neighbour make three calls about spraying during alleged “high” wind conditions. The subsequent investigation revealed wind speed was only 11 kilometres an hour - well within provincial limits of 20 kilometres an hour.
“From some of the stuff you read (on social media sites) you would think that farmers are out there spraying pesticides for fun,” he said. “They also don’t realize that practically every farmer (conventional or organic) uses pesticides.”
But some Islanders insist the P.E.I. government -- through tacit approval of the status quo -- is creating the hot potato.
Former reporter Ian Petrie covered P.E.I. agriculture for decades and is not surprised at the growing public scrutiny over pesticides on social media.
“I think it is fair ball for the public to be out doing this,” said Petrie, who blogs about food matters. “Government has dropped the ball completely on enforcing such things as crop rotations. So, yes, it’s very fair to take pictures of what’s growing where and what is being sprayed.”
However, he regrets such a “vigilante” environment is festering.
“It speaks to the public lack of confidence in the province’s willingness and ability to enforce anything,’’ he said. “I have concerns because farmers have told me they feel guilty when they're out spraying and feeling judged as if they're doing something wrong.”
Petrie said there’s always been mistrust between the general public and potato farmers.
“The Ghiz gestapo is what some farmers are now calling conservation officers,” he wrote in a recent blog. “While many, many in the general public think conservation officers only swing into action once the fish are dead. This is really troubling.”
The cone of silence is so great that annual pesticide sales data has not been released since 2008. And when the public gets riled over pesticides, the complaints wind up on the desk of Wade MacKinnon.
“There is a definite increase in the number of complaints,’’ said the manager of the Department of Environment investigation and enforcement branch. “We had over 100 complaints last year primarily concerned with wind speeds and spraying, and likely just as many will come before the end of this year.”
The department was successful with two $1,000 convictions in a Summerside courthouse in 2013, and others are pending.
But with only two pesticide officers for the entire province, it’s a busy job.
“It’s a very sensitive issue from both sides,” he said. “But our job is to respond to the public…..and if we determine there is a violation, it’s our job to proceed with legal action.”
While spraying infractions do occur, the department does get some overzealous callers offering inaccurate claims. In one case, a complaint turned out to be nothing more than a farmer fertilizing a field with manure.
“To put it mildly, the public is very sensitized to pesticides now.”
When asked, MacKinnon said it was not his role to comment on whether the legislative teeth of pesticide rules and regulations in P.E.I. were little more like dentures.
“We are driven by public complaints,” he said. “And if we look at the increase of those complaints….we can only imagine there will be more in the future.”
Rollo Bay potato farmer Alvin Kennan is the chairman of the Prince Edward Island Federation of Agriculture. He says farmers have always struggled to get their story across.
“People are trying to use social media to fit their own agenda,’’ he said. “I am concerned that we are not doing our due diligence as an industry to have the public more informed about how we are looking after the crops, ensuring food safety and using crop protection in a safe manner to prevent losses.”
Jamieson said he is dismayed at the activism and inaccuracies posted by some groups such as the P.E.I. Food Exchange.
“Their view of agriculture is extremely narrow and they seem to view any farmer who is not small and organic as a ‘factory farm’. They also like to perpetuate the notion that P.E.I. has the highest cancer rates caused by pesticides.”
Jamieson said the federation of agriculture is trying to get the real story out about agriculture and has taken on a fairly aggressive communications campaign to combat negativity. It also has its own Facebook page and Twitter account.
Back in Fairview, Diamond said her group is especially worried about glyphosate (Roundup), which was developed by Monsanto and widely used even though there are concerns about the effects on humans and the environment.
Pesticide Free P.E.I. plans to post more videos, including some with testimonials from people affected by pesticides, and is working to secure some celebrity endorsement as well.
“Islanders don’t want to offend anyone, but I’ve had my head stuck in the sand far too long…..we are going to push this as a major issue in the next election,” said Diamond. “There are plenty of examples of people growing good organic food here…the only reason we use pesticides in such quantity is to get a four-inch french fry.”