CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - The president of Cavendish Farms is warning that the future of potato farming could be at risk due to provincial restrictions on land ownership.
During a meeting of the province’s standing committee on communities, land and environment, Robert Irving brought attention to the declining numbers of potato farms on P.E.I. Since 1997, the number of potato farms on the Island has declined from 460 to 186. Irving said the province should double the land limit allowed under the Lands Protection Act in order to allow potato farmers to increase their yields.
Irving said crop rotation, which limits potato harvests to once every three years on individual plots of land, is a sound agricultural practice. But, he said smaller producers need to be allowed larger acreages. The Island currently limits individual landholdings to 1,000 acres for individual farms and 3,000 for corporate entities.
Irving said a limit of 2,100 acres would allow family farms to plant potatoes on 700 acres and rotate this crop over a three-year period.
"The challenge with the Island is that the farmers are not able to get the yields, quality and supply of potatoes off their fields year after year,” Irving said.
"He has to get a proper yield and therefore he has to have the scale, and the scale is by having more acres to grow his potatoes."
Land limits on P.E.I. under the Lands Protection Act
- 1,000 acres for small landowners
- 3,000 acres for corporations
Cavendish Farms is the largest purchaser of potatoes in P.E.I. The company announced in July it was getting out of the market for table potatoes in order to focus its P.E.I. operations exclusively on frozen foods. The company closed its plant in O’Leary, which employed 40 workers, over the summer.
Irving said this was due to an inadequate supply of potatoes on P.E.I. He said the company has increasingly been forced to rely on a supply of potatoes from New Brunswick, Maine and other locations.
PC MLA Brad Trivers asked if Cavendish Farms agreed with the “spirit” of the Island’s Land Protection Act, which he said was designed to keep land in the hands of smaller family farm operations.
Jubs Bristow, Cavendish Farms vice-president of agriculture, said family farms need to be bigger in order to be viable. He said agricultural regulations, which require three-year crop rotations, meant larger fields were needed.
“That’s the challenge we’re facing here today, is how do you manage the three-year crop rotation,” Bristow said.
Green Party MLA Peter Bevan-Baker raised the issue of viability of potato farms on P.E.I. He said potato profit margins – at 1.8 per cent in P.E.I. – are much lower than the profit margins in New Brunswick (6.5 per cent) or nationally (6 per cent).
Bevan-Baker suggested an agricultural industry composed of fewer-but-larger potato farms may not be more economically or environmentally sustainable.
Irving said the key issue was the lower potato yields per acre.
"That gets back to the fundamental challenges we have with supplement irrigation, not having water. If you have drought conditions like we've had the last several years, the potato is not getting the yield," Irving said.
P.E.I.’s potato farmers have seen low yields over the last two summers due to a lack of rain.
Although the recommendations presented to the standing committee on Thursday did not include a mention of supplemental irrigation, Cavendish Farms has argued the province lift its 16-year moratorium on the practice.
The province is awaiting the release, due in 2021, of a study by the Canadian Rivers Institute on the state of the Island’s rivers.