Cavendish Farms president Robert Irving, left, and Blaine MacPherson, company vice president of agricultural affairs, speak before a committee of MLAs probing the issue of high capacity wells. Irving says his company may be forced to look for potatoes elsewhere if P.E.I. does not lift the current moratorium on deep-water wells.
If Prince Edward Islanders and its government had any doubts beforehand, they were erased Thursday inside the Coles Building. In the shadow of historic Province House in the heart of urban Charlottetown, a blunt warning was issued that could have dramatic ramifications across rural P.E.I.
Two senior executives for Cavendish Farms told a legislative committee that the company may downsize its operations in P.E.I. if the government does not lift a moratorium on deep-water wells. It has taken a while for the company to finally lay its cards on the table, but there they were last Thursday for all to see.
Cavendish Farms president Robert Irving might have wished it hadn’t come to this, but the company is apparently frustrated and its patience running out while waiting for a decision on the wells issue. Ever since the P.E.I Potato Board first approached government in late 2012, it was believed that Cavendish Farms was the driving force behind the request to lift the decade-long moratorium.
As the news circulated, the vast majority of Islanders seem opposed, based on countless letters and opinion page submissions to this newspaper. They warned that lifting the moratorium would threaten the Island’s water supply, which is solely dependent on the groundwater table.
The Potato Board tried its best to convince Islanders that only a very small percentage of the water supply would be tapped and the annual recharge would more than adequately sustain any increased pressure.
The board then was forced to defend itself against mounting criticism of spraying, trying to justify that careful application of pesticides was essential to produce a healthy crop. Potato growers are facing relentless pressure on all sides — from processors to produce the perfect french fry potato through irrigation and pesticides use — and from Islanders opposed to both. Growers argue that if they don’t spray for weeds, blight or the Colorado potato beetle, they won’t have a crop.
So what has pushed Mr. Irving to take a threatening and bullying posture in front of MLAs on the agriculture standing committee, which had earlier recommended no changes pending presentation of compelling evidence or argument.
The company has done well financially by P.E.I. and vice versa. It has contracts for some 60 per cent of Island potato production and has a stranglehold on fertilizer sales.
First and foremost, the Irvings are shrewd businessmen. With them, it’s always business. If they cannot get their potatoes at a certain price and guaranteed quality here, they will get them somewhere else. That philosophy dictates company policy, not the loyalties of yesterday.
The Irvings want to know where the P.E.I. government stands — with them or against them. The threat of downsizing must be taken seriously. This is a $1-billion industry in play here.
Do opponents of wells and pesticides think such an enormous loss of revenue can ever be replaced?
This year, Cavendish Farms forced its contract growers to accept a three per cent reduction in price, despite higher costs for fertilizer, diesel and everything else. Was this a signal to government and industry that the company intends to play hardball from now on unless there are concessions on the well issue?
The potato board is desperately trying to find a solution and has suggested getting an independent group to assess the water supply issue and provide irrefutable scientific proof that limited deep-water wells are sustainable. It might be enough to placate Mr. Irving and keep everyone in business.
If not, the government may be forced to decide what’s more important — science supporting the well issue or potato processing supporting the basic economic structure of this province.
Bill McGuire Editorial Page / Opinion Page Editor The Guardian Charlottetown (902) 629-6000 ext. 6051 (office) (902 218-3327 (cellular) (902) 566-3808 (fax) E-mail: email@example.com