Irvings warn of consequences if deep water well moratorium isn't lifted

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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.

Cavendish Farms says it may be forced to downsize its operations and investments in P.E.I. if government does not lift its moratorium on deep-water wells.

Company president Robert Irving appeared before a provincial legislative standing committee Thursday in Charlottetown, which has resumed its probe into the issue of high capacity wells for agricultural irrigation.

Irving told the committee of MLAs his company is the largest private employer in the province, with an economic impact to P.E.I. of over $1 billion. He explained how Cavendish Farms and Cavendish Produce together purchase more than half of all raw potatoes grown on P.E.I.

But the Island’s potatoes are not meeting the stringent consistency and quality demands of the french fry market. That’s why his company is now at a crossroads, Irving said.

“Do we continue to invest in the Island with an unpredictable supply of quality potatoes at higher cost, or do we reduce investment and start growing elsewhere, where a supply of quality, lower cost potatoes are available?” Irving told the committee.

“We believe our future is here in Prince Edward Island, but the P.E.I. government needs to lift the moratorium on irrigation wells as we go into the future.”

The question of whether to allow deep wells to be drilled and used for potato crops has sparked intense public interest and heated debate over water use in Prince Edward Island.

Environmental advocates and the agricultural industry groups have waged a public relations battle over the question of whether P.E.I. has enough groundwater to support industrial irrigation of potato crops.

Scientific data compiled by the provincial Department of Environment suggests P.E.I.’s groundwater is replenished at a relatively high rate.

The department told the committee in February only seven per cent of water available for extraction within environmental regulations is being used.

Nonetheless, watershed groups, environmental activists and social advocacy groups have formed a coalition to oppose any new irrigation wells until further peer-reviewed scientific testing is done to ensure the wells would not deplete P.E.I.’s groundwater the province’s only source of drinking water.

The P.E.I. Potato Board, which has been jointly lobbying government to lift the moratorium with Cavendish Farms, told the committee Thursday it supports the notion of a third party reviewing the province’s scientific data.

“We’re saying, let’s settle this once and for all,” said Gary Linkletter, chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board.

“Get someone credible, probably from another province who’s got a good record, who has knowledge of these things, get them in, review the Department of Environment’s data, do other research as needed and get a definitive answer will this hurt P.E.I.’s environment? If it won’t, then continue on.”

Linkletter stressed repeatedly only one per cent of P.E.I.’s water is used for agriculture — the same amount used by golf courses, which are not facing the same scrutiny.

He also argued not all potato farmers would use irrigation if the moratorium were lifted, as it is a costly venture. He estimated installing a well, with all equipment and an environmental assessment, would cost over $200,000.

But potato growers who would choose not to irrigate may not be able to count on a contract with Cavendish Farms.

Irving told the MLAs his company would likely not enter into contracts with growers without irrigation if the moratorium were lifted.

“We would want them to irrigate,” Irving said.

“We’re looking for quality. It’s not about pressuring a grower. He’ll get better yield, he’ll get better strength of a good storage and he’ll make more money and company will supply our customer.”

Linkletter stressed P.E.I.’s farms would never be 100 per cent irrigated, but he believes farmers should be permitted to drill a well and irrigate if they need it.

“We’re just wanting them to have the option,” he said.

Organizations: Department of Environment, P.E.I. Potato Board

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown

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Recent comments

  • Randy Visser
    June 20, 2014 - 22:16

    As a potato grower I can speak to what its like to see a crop suffer from a shortage of rain. The cost to plant and tend an acre of potatoes is very high. Even though PEI grows the best potatoes in the world, we still need to be price competitive to sell. PEI is the only place that I know that prohibits irrigation. We would like to have the option to irrigate our crops. I would favour a decision based on independent scientific review. If the experts say its ok, then shouldn't it be allowed?

  • Grower
    June 14, 2014 - 22:27

    Stop for one minute and think,if the Irvings pull out of PEI have you any idea the hardship that this would cause.Now I know we need to protect our water,but lets talk to people who know about this and the danger of deep wells to our province first before we kill the beast.

  • islander
    June 14, 2014 - 13:02

    pei potatoes are known as the best,, so if they want to keep threats coming its time to put a stop to it all together and i cant see them going else where at all,, they are acting childish if you ask me!!

  • threats
    June 13, 2014 - 13:07

    I can't believe the blatant threats and bkackmail being used by Mr Irving - he didn't even bother to try and hide it with corporate jargon! What really bothers me is that the irrigation water will be needed most in a dry summer - when the water table will be lower, of course. Will any restrictions be applied and enforced (!) during these times? I would suggest that if the moratorium is lifted then we will need a water table level monitor to continually measure the effects of the deep wells - and we need legislation to permit the wells to be shut down immediately if any adverse effects are detected. It's too late once the stable door is open and the horse has bolted.........

    June 13, 2014 - 12:58

    Go to Cavendish Farms and look an the production and shipping boards in the entrance. Then explain to me where the bleeding and low production are???

  • Jakolin
    June 13, 2014 - 12:25

    I can't believe it! If government doesn't give in to Cavendish Farms and lift the moratorium, they will fire people, is that not a threat? Did we not just give Cavendish Farms money all not that long ago because they were going to have to let people go if they didn't, and didn't this same company just let go and early retire over 65 staff, only to rehire them at cheaper wages and some in different positions? I think Cavendish Farms may have the government by the balls, and it is a sad day when we could damage our ecosystem as well as our drinking water for the love of money.

  • Islander
    June 13, 2014 - 11:16

    I love how the Irvings start making threats on employment on the Island, because they are not allowed to do what they want. Real classy.

  • its about time
    June 13, 2014 - 09:41

    get the Irvings out of grubbing thieves. flexing their muscles to get their way. Good thing they get to use the islanders who work for them as leverage to get their way. Need to preserve our fragile environment not find ways to endanger it further, especially for the sake of some potatoes. The potato industry in PEI needs to be reevaluated too many clear cuts and too much pesticides.

  • James Williams
    June 13, 2014 - 09:07

    Water is the for the people and not to be used for the direct wealth of one particular person or corporation. When is too much ? When we find out that there isn't any water for the common man,women and child? Stop this intimidation by corporation! Now. It is time for government to represent the people of Prince Edward Island.

  • Joyce
    June 13, 2014 - 08:27

    Now that's an Irving threat if I've ever heard one. Unfortunately, that's all it takes for the government to listen!!!

  • SomeSense
    June 13, 2014 - 08:07

    stand firm for the people of PEI and call their bluff

    June 13, 2014 - 07:55

    People are starting to see the real side of the Irvings. They do not ask, they WARN and DEMAND. Here is another example. Give him what he wants regardless if it is the wish of the majority or not or he will put people out of work. If he wins this against the wishes of the people what will his next demand be??

    • Davis Peters
      June 20, 2014 - 12:13

      I'm amazed at the approach. Don't these guys have pr advisors??