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

Sprouting ideas

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on March 7, 2015
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.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARY MACKAY

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.”