Taking care of our water and soil, part 2

My last blog was about the problems associated with current agricultural practices on PEI, and because I never like to criticize or complain without offering a positive alternative, I promised to write my next blog on how farming might be done differently on PEI.

I’d like to start by outlining the principles from which I think the future of Island farming should be drawn.

I’d like to see agriculture on PEI which:

  1.       Provides a good living for hard-working farmers.
  2.       Grows a diversity of high-value, high-quality produce.
  3.       Protects the health of Island soil and waterways.
  4.       Plays a central role in revitalizing rural communities.

Perhaps it’s best to start by assessing how the status quo measures up to these criteria.

  1. While it is true that the value of farm exports has risen substantially over recent years, that is not what determines net farm incomes. If you compare farm receipts to profits (Time and a place: An environmental history of PEI, p197) , it is crystal clear that the take-home pay from farming has been steadily decreasing. Profit margins are wafer-thin (much lower than other provinces’ potato farmers), despite increasing yields. Just last week the Potato Board and government announced that they are plowing $540,000 into a 3-year program to increase yields, but what we need to do is increase farm incomes, not yields.
  2. On PEI we farm one dominant crop - potatoes, which account for over three quarters of total crop value (see Annual Statistical Review 2015, Table 60).
  3. I talked in my last blog about the environmental consequences of industrial agriculture on PEI, and I won’t repeat it here.
  4. The spread of industrial agriculture across PEI has coincided with the withering of rural communities. In other words, the status quo is moving us in exactly the opposite direction from what I believe is healthy, prosperous and sustainable.

So how could things be different? How can we move to a farming model on PEI which supports farmers, protects and enhances the health of our land and water, and regenerates rural PEI? Answering that question requires two distinct but related threads of thought: one is a long-term vision, and the other is a plan to get from where we are now to that vision.

The Green Party vision flows from the principles above, and would mean more farmers and more farms growing a wider variety of produce which would focus on high-value, low-volume products recognized for their purity and health. It would also mean more livestock and mixed farming operations to restore balance to an unstable system. That doesn’t mean the end to growing potatoes on PEI, and it doesn’t mean all farms must be small: it means focusing on income per acre, and an end to our failed attempt to compete in a global commodities marketplace where PEI has some insurmountable disadvantages. Some say we can and should become the organic Island, and for many of us that is an attractive idea, which leads us to the second aspect of new farming on PEI – how to get there from here.

To a certain extent the transition is already happening, as consumers demand to know more about the origins and health of their food, and as new young farmers embrace the challenge of supplying this new market. But there are many obstacles in the way of existing farmers making the transition from the potato processing sector to something else. Many of these farmers are stewards of a multi-generational family farm, to which they are deeply attached. They have invested heavily in machinery and other infrastructure which is dedicated to a very specialized crop. They also care profoundly about the environment of the Island they call home.  Many have contracts with a particular buyer in a market where no others exist. All of these things make exiting their current situation almost impossible without some form of help.

If government is serious about creating a sustainable, prosperous farming community on PEI, it will have to step up and help guide the transition towards that goal. Creating a land bank to help new farmers establish themselves (recommendation 21 in the Carver Report, pp.49-50), supporting existing farmers financially in the transition to new methods of working the land, and ensuring that any job losses that may occur as a result of a change in direction are mitigated for properly are just some ways that government must be involved. (New agriculture is far more labour intensive, and on balance hundreds if not thousands of new jobs would be created).  I am not suggesting that this is an easy task, but I am suggesting that we cannot carry on doing what we are doing today. Our land, our water and our farmers deserve better.