All across Canada, the business of agriculture is butting up against urban assumptions and expectations.
Nowhere is this more evident than on Prince Edward Island (PEI) where farmers and non-farmers live cheek-byjowl in one of our country’s most beautiful regions.
Part of that closeness, says John Jamieson, executive director of Prince Edward Island Federation of Agriculture (PEIFA), simply comes down to population density. With just over 1.4 million acres and 145,000 people, PEI has the highest population density in Canada at 24.7 persons per square kilometre.
The other part is haphazard planning. “There’s been very little land planning on PEI,” says Jamieson. “If you drive around the island, you see a farm, then a subdivision, then a private home, then another farm.”
So if you’re in the business of agriculture on PEI, inevitably you’ll run up against competing interests — from fellow farmers as well as non-farmers. Indeed, island history, geography, hydrology and society all come together to create some of the most interesting and unique business conditions for agriculture in Canada. Farmers elsewhere: take note.
Agriculture is PEI’s number one industry. But a finite land mass and highly erodible soil have led government to establish protective measures that greatly impact how individual producers operate.
In particular, two pieces of legislation dominate the agricultural discussion: the Lands Protection Act (LPA) and a provincial moratorium on highcapacity irrigation wells.
“Land ownership in PEI is a historical minefield,” says Jamieson. It goes all the way back to 1763, when PEI was transferred from France to England via the Treaty of Paris. “It was divided into 67 parcels of land, owned by absentee landlords in Europe and rented out to tenant farmers. Riots ended that system in 1875, just after confederation.”
The legacy of that feudalism is a heightened sensitivity to land ownership — a desire to ensure land remains under local control and that no one person or entity controls too much.
That came to a head with the LPA, which became law in 1982 and sought to limit the amount of land any one person, resident or non-resident, could own.
For farmers, this law meant an individual could own no more than 1,000 acres, and a corporation (minimum of three equal shareholders) no more than 3,000 acres. Sounds good in theory, but in practice it did not work well.
For one thing, the limits included all land — arable and non-arable. For another, it double-counted some land.
If three members of one family formed a farm corporation, for example, each person had to include common property in his or her 1,000-acre count.
“The challenge is that farms are getting larger, which they must do to survive, and the number of farms is declining,” says Jamieson. “We do see a need for limits, but we want them to reflect the reality of the day.”
In 2013, a review of the LPA resulted in a number of changes, including the elimination of double counting and applying acreage limits to arable land only. “With all the different provisions and exemptions in the LPA today, it’s possible for a farm operation to have up to 5,500 acres,” says Jamieson. That’s not bad for a small island.
And while the LPA applies to all landowners, farm and non-farm, the high capacity well moratorium established in 2002 is directed solely at wells intended for agricultural irrigation.
“PEI’s average precipitation is 1,100 millimetres (45 inches) a year,” says Jamieson. It rather begs the question of why irrigation is needed at all, but it’s not a supply issue so much as one of timing, he explains
PEI’s main crop is potatoes, the majority of which are the long-maturing Russet Burbank, harvested well into September and October.
In some years there can be critical periods where irrigation would be helpful to make up for a lack of timely rainfall. “Only a limited number of farms could use irrigation,” says Jamieson, “and then only during dry spells. Last year, if we’d had it, we would have used it for only three weeks.”
It’s particularly galling to farmers that the moratorium applies only to them. “I could open a golf course tomorrow, be allowed to drill a high capacity well, dump a million gallons of water a week on the greens, and no one would say anything,” says Jamieson.
It’s a highly contentious issue because useable water seems plentiful and, unlike other provinces, PEI does not have legislation prioritizing and governing water use.
PEI is 100 per cent groundwater fed, says Jamieson. “You can dig a hole just about anywhere and get useable water. ” Annual recharge rates are very high (about 385,000 m3/km2/year). Even when accounting for all uses — agricultural, industrial and residential — PEI currently uses only seven per cent of available groundwater recharge.
The PEIFA and the PEI Potato Board are working to have the moratorium lifted. A legislative standing committee is taking submissions and looking at the issue. The government has responded by saying it will create a water act and Jamieson is hopeful.
“We need to manage water properly — it is a public resource. So what we’re saying is let’s look at the science and put some checks and balances in place.”
But land and water rights mean nothing if farmers can’t farm. PEI has a very active antipesticide movement that is putting a lot of pressure on the industry as a whole. And while most regions in Canada experience this conflict to some degree, it’s a real hot button in PEI because the farming and non-farming public live and work on each other’s doorsteps. “Not only can people see you spraying,” says Jamieson, “they sometimes call the cops to make you stop! It can make doing business difficult.”
Jamieson and the PEIFA are stepping up to the plate to help educate and inform people about what’s happening in their neighbourhoods, but this can be an uphill battle. “The challenge is that most of the negative arguments around agriculture are emotional, and nine times out of 10, emotion will trump facts,” he says. “We need to be able to touch people’s emotions.
I keep telling my board this and we are developing a rigorous communications plan to help us address the issues.”
PEI’s wildly successful Open Farm Day, held every September, is Jamieson’s proof that when facts and emotion come together, barriers can fall. It’s one day a year when just over 20 farms open their doors to the public. Farm owners tour people around, explain how things are done and answer any questions. Participating farms get, on average, 1,000 visitors.
“I say to farmers, don’t hang your head too low about the state of farming because when you have almost 1,000 visitors coming to your gate, it shows that people are interested in what you’re doing and want to know more.”
The PEIFA also works with farmers so that they can give public talks about the business, whether at their own farms on Open Farm Day, or in schools or for local business groups. “We even do a calendar of PEI farmers that we give out at farmers’ markets — we don’t dress them up, we just haul them out of a field and take the pictures,” says Jamieson. “People just love that.
” And he runs out of calendars every year.
PEI’s farmers represent the province’s biggest industry — agriculture is the largest contributor to the economy — so there is a lot on the line when it comes to rural-urban issues as well as getting legislation right. “It’s very much a progressive growth industry,” says Jamieson.