An acquisition of over 2,200 acres of farmland by an Irving-affiliated company, Haslemere Farms Ltd., occurred as a result of a corporate sale in what a company representative acknowledged could be a “loophole” in the Lands Protection Act.
A sale of the same land by the family-owned Brendel Farms Ltd. to three Irving-owned companies was denied last March by the then-Liberal cabinet because it contravened the Lands Protection Act. The LPA limits land holdings of agricultural corporations to 3,000 acres of land.
Large sales of land usually require the approval of cabinet, but lands transferred in corporate sales are exempt from this requirement.
Agricultural critics in P.E.I. have raised concerns for years about potential loopholes in the LPA, which they say is allowing large corporations and their subsidiaries to increasingly consume more farmland on the Island.
Geoffrey Connolly, a Haslemere Farms representative, did not dispute that the transaction was allowed due to a “loophole” in the Lands Protection Act.
“It's just an interpretation of legislation,” Connolly said of the term.
“That's in common parlance, yeah some people might call it a loophole. But the company that acquired the land, all the approvals are there. It's just a matter of the way the legislation is written."
Haslemere Farms Ltd. currently lists Rebecca Irving, daughter of Mary Jean Irving, as its sole director. Mary Jean Irving is the president of Indian River Farms, one of the businesses that was denied the sale of the Brendel land last March. Brendel Farms Ltd. is a family-owned farming corporation, and lists Derrick, Dwight, Megan and Crystal Gardiner as its directors.
"Where does Rebecca Irving get the capital to buy 2,200 acres? That's what part of the Lands Protection Act was meant to be able to protect us from."
-Douglas Campbell, P.E.I. district director of the National Farmers Union
Haslemere Farms Ltd. initially listed the Gardiners as its directors when it was first incorporated on June 17, 2019. On July 27, 2019, the 2,220 acres of land was transferred from Brendel Farms to Haslemere Farms. By July 12, however, Rebecca Irving was the sole director of Haslemere Farms Ltd.
The company changed its name to Red Fox Acres Ltd. on Aug. 7.
Connolly said that because a corporation was purchased instead of a parcel of land, approval from the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission was not required.
The sale was in compliance with the Business Corporation Act, he said. P.E.I.’s Business Corporation Act was passed in June 2018, replacing the Companies Act.
“The land transfer happened before the company acquisition. That land transfer was from Brendel Farms to Haslemere and that was done within the Gardiners' organization and structure," Connolly said.
Connolly, who is also a partner with Stewart McKelvey, said Haslemere Farms Ltd. is distinct from J.D. Irving Limited.
The company lists 60 Belvedere Ave. as its address. This is the address of Master Packaging Inc., of which Mary Jean Irving is the president and CEO. The company is owned by J.D. Irving Ltd.
"It has no connection to J.D. Irving at all," Connolly said of Haslemere Farms.
"That's just a mailing address where notices will go."
Douglas Campbell, P.E.I. district director of the National Farmers Union, disputed this.
"Where does Rebecca Irving get the capital to buy 2,200 acres? That's what part of the Lands Protection Act was meant to be able to protect us from," Campbell said.
Campbell said the acquisition of Haslemere demonstrates the Irvings do not respect P.E.I. laws.
"This has dire consequences to the Lands Protection Act and it has consequences to the potato industry as a whole," Campbell said.
"When you go back to what the Act was originally intended for, it was to protect an industry and the farmers from absolutely everything that has been going on here."
Campbell believes the legislature should be recalled in order to close what he called “loopholes” in the Lands Protection Act. He also said Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson has the power to deem what a corporation is, and whether Haslemere Farms is an “interlocking” corporation, connected with J.D. Irving Ltd.
A statement from Thompson said he has asked IRAC to review the Brendel-Halsemere sale. He declined a request for an interview.