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Access to acreage, start-up costs big concerns for P.E.I. farmers in election campaign

Soleil Hutchinson looks over some sprouts and microgreens at her mixed farm in South Melville. Hutchinson said she hopes to see land access issues, soil quality and start-up costs for new farmers addressed in the election campaign.
Soleil Hutchinson looks over some sprouts and microgreens at her mixed farm in South Melville. Hutchinson said she hopes to see land access issues, soil quality and start-up costs for new farmers addressed in the election campaign. - Mitch MacDonald

Decision '19.
Decision '19.

WINSLOE SOUTH, P.E.I. - Brian D. Turner does not envy those who are trying to enter the farming industry today.

The Winsloe South farmer of 52 years has seen small family farms dwindle throughout the decades, which he has described as a “product of 60 years of neglect” from multiple governments.

With major hurdles now in place to enter what can be an unpredictable industry, Turner can see why so many young Islanders have left the farming way of life behind and moved out of the province.

“People didn’t want to farm because it’s too hard to make a living,” he said. “We have to help farmers, especially young farmers, to get ahead.”

Turner, as well as many other Island farmers, have raised concerns around land sales in the province during the election campaign with many feeling loopholes are being exploited in P.E.I.’s Lands Protection Act to put more acreage into fewer hands.

He said he likes the idea of a farm or land bank that would preserve existing acreage and make it available for new farmers to help “get their wheels in motion.”

“At least they wouldn’t have such a high mortgage,” said Turner. “It’s great to give people a chance and let them give it a whirl so if it doesn’t work out, they haven’t lost everything.

“We need the next generation.”

The creation of a land bank of some type and a review of the act have been endorsed by P.E.I.’s three opposition parties during the campaign.

Gary Clausheide of Valleyfield’s Sweet Clover Farm said he would like to see a community land trust after previously farming one in Vermont many years ago.

However, he is unsure whether the party leaders have a full understanding of what would make a similar initiative successful on P.E.I.

“The thing is, when a property is turned into a land trust it ceases to be a commodity, so it’s no longer up for sale,” said Clausheide, noting the trust he lived on had a board of directors who chose who could farm the land.

However, the biggest issue facing Island farmers is not land access, said Clausheide.

It’s a question of livelihood.

“How would a young farmer make a living at it?” said Clausheide, adding there is no shortage of young people who want to farm.

“They would like to do it, it’s kind of a romantic ideal, but look at the options.”

Clauseheide noted while the farmers’ market is good for those who sell there now, it cannot accommodate many more producers.

He would like to see parties address that market by implementing more buy-local food policies at government institutions. He pointed to the Massachusetts’ supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) where those receiving food stamps are encouraged to spend them at local farmers’ markets.

Gary Clausheide, of Valleyfield’s Sweet Clover Farm, asks a question during a leaders debate on land issues hosted by the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Lands. Clausheide said he would like to see a community land trust established in P.E.I., with three of P.E.I.’s party leaders committing to a land bank of some form. - Mitch MacDonald/The Guardian
Gary Clausheide, of Valleyfield’s Sweet Clover Farm, asks a question during a leaders debate on land issues hosted by the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Lands. Clausheide said he would like to see a community land trust established in P.E.I., with three of P.E.I.’s party leaders committing to a land bank of some form. - Mitch MacDonald/The Guardian

 

Byron Petrie of Sea Spray Organic Co-op also feels there must be more of a push on buying local and would like to see the province work with bigger box food stores.

He also liked the idea of a land bank or trust but questioned whether it would go far enough.

“Land is one thing, but there are so many expenditures (for new farmers),” he said. “Farming is so capital intensive. You have to sink so much money before you even get going.”

The costs of barns, tractors and even seeds can add up quickly.

Petrie said he would like to see a grace period, for example five years, of not having to make payments on the land.

Another approach that could work would be following New Brunswick’s farm land identification program (FLIP), said Petrie. The program allows farmers to defer their provincial property taxes on farmland and outbuildings in order to preserve the land for agricultural use. If the land is ever sold, a potential buyer would have to repay those deferred taxes unless they planned to keep the land in production.

While the other three parties have advocated for land banks, the governing Liberals addressed the issue by saying they would continue low-interest loans to help farmers buy land, as well as investment programs for equipment, cattle and crop insurance.

Petrie said while those programs are offered, they are not easy to find unless you know what you’re looking for. He also said that with many provincial programs, farmers are first required to get funding approval from a bank before later being reimbursed by the province.

While that can help existing farmers, Petrie said it’s still difficult for new farmers.

“Those programs help you out, but you have to put the initial money in and that’s the crux of the problem,” said Petrie. “Farmers are not really taken seriously at a bank until you’ve done a couple of years.”

Petrie, who attended the leaders debate hosted by the Coalition for the Protection of P.E.I. Lands, said he was happy and surprised to see three of the parties acknowledging that things “are not quite alright and rosy” in the industry.

“Those are pretty important things to talk about. Maybe the industrial model is not necessarily working in our favour,” he said. “The promotion of small- or medium-sized mixed farms should be our focus.”
 

RELATED: P.E.I. farmers looking for provincial candidates to address organic matter quality


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This is the next story in a series The Guardian is publishing on district profiles and election issues up until April 22.

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