Cavendish Farms asks for doubling of P.E.I. land ownership limits

The head of Cavendish Farms warned a legislative committee Thursday about “significant threats to the long-term sustainability of potato farming on Prince Edward Island,” while asking government to double land ownership limits imposed on Island potato farmers.

Company says potato industry facing 'significant threats,' and bigger farms will be more viable

Cavendish Farms is asking the P.E.I. government to double land ownership limits for Island potato farmers, warning of threats to the 'long-term sustainability' of the industry due to decreasing yields. (Open Farm Day/Facebook)

The head of Cavendish Farms warned a legislative committee Thursday about "significant threats to the long-term sustainability of potato farming on Prince Edward Island," while asking government to double land ownership limits imposed on Island potato farmers.

"The future of the P.E.I. potato industry is at risk," said Robert Irving, president of Cavendish Farms, one of the largest private employers in the province.

Irving told members of P.E.I.'s standing committee on communities, land and environment that potato yields for 2018 are shaping up to be the lowest since 2008, in the wake of "near drought" conditions during the summer.

Under P.E.I.'s Lands Protection Act, individuals are limited to owning 768 hectares (1,900 acres) of land, including 404 hectares (1,000 acres) of arable land plus allowances for non-arable land and land that is leased out. For corporations the limit is 2,306 hectares (5,700 acres).

Representatives of Cavendish Farms from left, Robert Irving, Jubs Bristow and John MacQuarrie, appeared before P.E.I.'s standing committee on communities, land and environment Thursday. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

Irving said land limits developed during the 1980s are putting Island farmers at a disadvantage, saying Island farms need "to be able to operate at a scale that enables them to be competitive."

283 hectares to be 'economically sustainable'

In terms of what that should be, Irving told the committee a family farm needs 283 hectares (700 acres) of potatoes to be "economically sustainable." Within the context of a three-year crop rotation, he said that means potato farmers on P.E.I. need 850 hectares (2,100 acres) of arable land.

But when questioned by Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker, Irving said the percentage of growers working for Cavendish Farms operating on a two year rotation, under an exemption to the three-year policy, is "quite high."

Irving said increasing land ownership limits would not only allow farmers to become more competitive by allowing them to produce more potatoes to offset their costs, but would also allow them to "ensure environmentally sound rotation."

More growers to buy from, says MLA

PC MLA Brad Trivers suggested one way to make Island potato farms more viable would be to pay them more for their product.

He also noted Cavendish Farms, which works with specific growers under contract, purchased potatoes from fewer than half the 183 Island farmers which grew spuds in 2017. The company noted it began importing some of the potatoes it processes on P.E.I. starting in 2016.

"So there actually is more capacity on P.E.I. to grow potatoes, and possibly with good quality crop rotation practices," Trivers told reporters after the meeting, suggesting it all boils down to "why those farms are not choosing to grow processing potatoes for Cavendish Farms."

Cavendish Farms, P.E.I. in talks over water use

While citing a reduction in potato yields tied to dry growing conditions on P.E.I., Cavendish Farms did not reiterate a previous demand the province lift a moratorium on new high capacity wells to be used for irrigation.

After the meeting, Irving told reporters his company is "now in talks with the government trying to find ways to make sure we can have a collaborative plan to manage the water use on Prince Edward Island. We're trying to find a solution through our growers, through the government and ourselves, to find the right means to manage water here."

The province passed a new Water Act a year ago, but at the time said any decision on the controversial issue of high capacity wells would be dealt with in future regulations.

Cavendish Farms, one of the biggest private employers in the province, says potato yields for 2018 are shaping up to be the lowest in a decade after a dry summer. (CBC)

"They have made proposals to us, and we are reviewing those proposals," Environment Minister Richard Brown said Thursday regarding the talks on water use with Cavendish Farms. "We will be taking their presentations into consideration when we develop the water regulations, but the public will have their say."

In terms of Cavendish Farm's request to double land ownership limits, Brown said it's a balancing act.

While farms have to be viable, Brown said "I don't want three or four corporations owning 25 per cent of the land on Prince Edward Island. I don't think any Islander would want it. That's why we do have the Lands Protection Act."

The standing committee is currently reviewing that act.

Brown said he would ask the Island Regulatory and Appeals Commission to present to the committee its report on corporate and non-resident land ownership in the province.

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About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca