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EDITORIAL: Industry in peril

Additional heavy equipment is parked with idle potato equipment along the Gard Road in West Prince on Tuesday.
Additional heavy equipment is parked with idle potato equipment along the Gard Road in West Prince. Wet fields are delaying the harvest across P.E.I.. - Eric McCarthy

If fewer and poorer quality potatoes becomes the norm, the company will make a business decision.

The president of Cavendish Farms is pulling fewer punches each time he makes an argument for the P.E.I. government to loosen regulations that hinder the supply of quality potatoes to his New Annan processing operations.

In May, Robert Irving made a pitch for government to lift a 16-year moratorium on deep-water wells. He said the province was one heavy rainfall away from a disastrous potato crop in 2017. As Mr. Irving argued, P.E.I. growers and his company needn’t be held hostage by Mother Nature, when there is the option for supplemental irrigation to deliver a quality, plentiful product to the french fry plant.

P.E.I. growers faced a similar situation this summer. There was little rain during a hot, dry July and moisture was spotty across the province during critical growing months. Farmers, who delayed the harvest to allow potatoes to complete their growing cycle, were caught by an early, wet fall. Many growers are still scrambling to finish digging and hundreds of acres could be left in the ground.

Mr. Irving was here again last week, not to raise the deep-water wells issue, but acreage restrictions under the 1982 Lands Protections Act (LPA). Appearing before a legislature standing committee, he made a business case to increase the family farm limit from 1,000 acres to 2,100 – a figure he suggests is now a basic minimum for growers on a three-year, crop rotation. Profit margins are narrow, so farmers need to grow more acres to stay in business. The 1,000-acre limit won’t save his contract growers. As more go out of business, his local potato supply shrinks.

And, as Mr. Irving noted, the LPA has failed to save the family farm. Many small operations have folded. Since 1997, the number of potato farms on the Island declined from 460 to 186. If farms don’t get bigger, they won't be growing potatoes and Cavendish won’t be producing french fries. Tinkering with the LPA has already increased the limit on arable land holdings to 1,400 acres for family farms and 4,200 acres for corporate farms, recognizing that a portion of farm acreage is usually not suitable for growing potatoes.

Mr. Irving didn’t say that Cavendish Farms might consider scaling back its operations on P.E.I. or moving elsewhere. He didn’t have to – the conclusions are obvious. If fewer and poorer quality potatoes becomes the norm, the company will make a business decision. It has shown that it won't hesitate; it closed its table packaging plant in O’Leary this summer.

Mr. Irving won't have to do make the tough decision. The province’s stance on deep-water wells and LPA restrictions will ensure fewer farms and fewer potatoes - and Cavendish Farms will have no option but to leave and threaten a $1 billion P.E.I. industry. The issue needs a thorough debate in the legislature - on what it takes to keep farmers growing potatoes and Mr. Irving to keep processing french fries on P.E.I.

Government must address this issue. If not, Islanders must start considering a future without Cavendish Farms.

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