CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - It was three against one when P.E.I.’s political leaders debated Wednesday how to ensure the province’s arable land remains in the hands of Island farmers.
Liberal Leader Wade MacLauchlan was the only candidate during the agriculture debate, hosted by the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, who did not call for a review or overhaul of P.E.I.’s Lands Protection Act.
When asked how his government would protect farmland, MacLauchlan cited a recent interim report produced by the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission showing that P.E.I. has not seen an increase in non-resident ownership of land in recent years and that roughly the same amount of acreage has remained in agricultural production.
He said the challenge is in how the province invests so farmers continue to own productive land.
“It’s not that complicated. First, it’s to do with financing,” said MacLauchlan, who praised a provincial $10 million fund for farmland acquisitions, as well as loan programs for equipment and livestock. “We should be proud of this as Islanders, we have a loan portfolio through government of roughly $25 million for agricultural purposes and there’s no reason that we couldn’t expand when demand arises.”
MacLauchlan said the province could also look at removing red tape for farmland acquisition, even suggesting a review of IRAC.
“We should also learn lessons from the past in terms of where red tape has been perhaps unduly burdensome.”
The three other leaders all called for a review of the act as well as the creation of a land or farm bank.
It was a common theme throughout the night for NDP Leader Joe Byrne, who heavily advocated for shifting farmland ownership away from corporations towards families.
“We can no longer ask our farmers and farm families to do all the work and not receive a fair share of the profits while others walk away with the money.”
Byrne was also critical of the province’s loan programs.
“If this was working so well, we wouldn’t be hearing the complaints,” said Byrne, who wanted more transparency around land sales in the province. “(Right now) nobody knows, a decision gets made, a parcel of land gets sold, nobody knows exactly to which corporation or how far those tendrils reach.”
“The very first thing we need to do is bring in some sunlight. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
PC Leader Dennis King, who has promised a land bank that would purchase land from retiring farmers and make it available for young Islander farmers, also doubted MacLauchlan.
“What I hear out there is vastly different. I think the agriculture community are frustrated, they feel like some land is falling through the fingers of Island farmers and getting into the hands of non-resident at a rate they’re not comfortable with,” said King, who pledged to close loopholes in the act. “(Farmers) don’t feel the process is fair, they don’t feel like the guidelines are strong enough.”
Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker said he would first want an independent review of the act and then pledged to create a land bank through an annual $4.5 million investment.
“We need a diversity of farms. We need those export-focused large farms,” he said. “But we also need, if we are to protect the land here, those smaller farms. We need more farmers on P.E.I.”
MacLauchlan was critical of Bevan-Baker’s proposal.
“They produced a policy the first of last week with $150,000 for a land bank and by the middle of this week, they have $4.5 million,” said MacLauchlan. “We have to be very careful about making things up on the fly and we have to be very discerning of what’s working and what’s not.”
The evening also saw all four leaders praise supply management, with Byrne suggesting it be expanded into other agricultural sectors.