I attended this morning’s [November 1, 2018] Communities, Land and Environment Standing Committee hearing. It was depressing.
It was exactly one year ago to the day that the committee passed a motion inviting Vanco Farms, the Great Enlightenment Buddhist Institute Society (GEBIS) and Cavendish Farms to appear before the committee to answer questions related to their land holdings. Since then, Liberal MLA Allen Roach joined the committee and succeeded in convincing his liberal MLA colleagues (who, of course, hold the majority vote on the committee) to support his motion to rescind the invitation sent to GEBIS. I’m not sure if or when Vanco Farms will appear before the committee, but it was Cavendish Farms president Robert Irving who was on deck for this morning’s hearing.
I expected Mr. Irving would be grilled about his land holdings, or the holdings of other companies he may be affiliated with, etc., but it quickly became obvious that it was Robert Irving who showed up with an agenda to enlighten the members of the committee…not the other way around.
Irving delivered a slick, salesman’s presentation in the form of a talk-along glossy slideshow production [the above chart was one slide from that presentation] lasting roughly 1/2 an hour; then the chair, Liberal MLA Kathleen Casey, started a “speaker’s list” with PC MLA Brad Trivers kicking things off with a few questions.
Then Ms. Casey suddenly interjected with an apologetic and surprised tone to say that she had forgotten to mention that the presenters had another “time commitment” and would be leaving at 11:00 am, so there was just a few more minutes left for just a few more more questions. Wow! The shock and disappointment from opposition MLAs was palpable as Ms. Casey used up a considerable amount of the limited time remaining apologizing a couple of more times for forgetting to mention that detail at the outset of the hearing.
The committee waited a full year to ask Robert Irving about his land holdings, and then members were not only forced to listen to him push his corporate mantras of “bigger is better”….. “we need more potatoes”……”we need more water….holding ponds and deep water wells”….”we need double the land limits for our contract processor potato farmers”….”bigger farms to compete globally”….”higher potato yields per acre”… etc. etc. etc., but were denied the opportunity to ask him questions about his land holdings. They unanimously agreed to “invite him back”. Perhaps next time he’ll be able to clear his busy agenda and stay for questions and forego an unsolicited presentation.
Peter Bevan Baker did manage to get a few words out before Robert had to rush off to something more important than a PEI government Standing Committee hearing, astutely pointing out that despite PEI having a mandatory three-year crop rotation in place for potatoes, many farmers – especially potato farmers – are nonetheless only using a two-year rotation, which Robert Irving acknowledged was indeed the case.
Then Peter also pointed out that the 18-year study of soil organic matter in PEI soils across the Island has shown a serious depletion in many areas, especially as a result of the intensive potato farming methods over the past few decades; and again, Robert Irving nodded in full agreement, but then immediately proceeded to repeat his thinly-veiled threat that if his company is to remain competitive and profitable, then the government has to change the Lands Protection Act to allow potato farmers to own more land – more than twice as much – and also access more water for irrigation, otherwise they won’t achieve a viable “economy of scale” allowing them to be competitive in global french fry markets. And to drive home the point, he argued that a “new farmer” in PEI growing potatoes for his processing plant would require an initial investment of between $12-14 million just to get going if that farmer was to have any hope of being competitive and surviving.
Listening to Mr. Irving talk reminded me of Leo Tolstoy’s famous short-story “How much land does a man need, ” as I recalled all the times my order was distrusted at a fast-food drive-thru as I was asked: “Would you like to upsize your fries?” and wondering to myself: “When is enough fries, enough fries?”
Then when I looked at one of his slides showing a graph with the total amount of processing potatoes produced for his french fry plant a little closer – while listening to Irving bemoan the fact that he’s had to import potatoes for each of the past three years – I just kept thinking to myself: “No you didn’t…you didn’t have to import any potatoes….you could have produced just as many french fries as the previous year with the PEI potatoes that were grown here for each of those years!” Look at your own chart for the love of God!
So the real question isn’t: “How can PEI potato farmers squeeze more potatoes out of our already long-suffering land that badly needs restoration?”; the real question is: “How many french fries does Robert Irving need to produce to be happy?”
We have clearly reached – likely exceeded – our potato-producing capacity in PEI, both in terms of the number of acres dedicated to potatoes (83,000 acres) and what constitutes a reasonable, sustainable yield-per-acre, given all the natural parameters we have to work within, which is already further depleting the nutrients in our soil by demanding that land produce potatoes at the same intensive rate as it has for decades. And Robert Irving acknowledged that fact – that it isn’t sustainable to grow more acres of potatoes in PEI. Yet he insists we extract larger yields from the existing number of acres. That can only happen by applying more chemical fertilizers and water from irrigation, neither of which is a good idea for long-term sustainable farming in PEI, nor is it a solution to the problems of depleted, soils, contaminated ground water, increased erosion, etc.
The real insanity of this corporate demand for increased potato yields is that the soil is now already so damaged that it won’t retain nearly as much water as it used to hold; more and more chemicals are leaching into our groundwater as a result of depleted soil organic matter; agricultural land is far more prone to erosion and permanent topsoil loss; and crops require more and more chemical fertilizers just to produce the same volume of potatoes. Like a drug addict who builds up a tolerance to his drug of choice, more and more of that drug is required to get the same “high” – until eventually, there’s a tragic overdose. Robert Irving’s vision for PEI agriculture is to “up the dose” and I think we all know how that ends.
In coming days, I’ll be mapping out a far more sustainable long-term vision for Island agriculture. It isn’t going to be simple or easy, but it will make sense and respect the biological, environmental and economic requirements to address the interrelated and critically-serious problems which chemical-intensive, corporate monocultural farming is causing – especially the intensive corporate farming of potatoes for processing into french fries.
Robert Irving assured MLAs that he was committed to ensuring sustainable agriculture in PEI on a go-forward basis. What he proposed this morning will not be sustainable: in fact, it will take us in exactly in the opposite direction from where we need to be going. We need many more smaller, more diversified farms in PEI, not bigger farms with bigger machinery, applying more toxins into our environment. Those were, in fact, the conclusions drawn from an analysis of the causes (and cures) for soil organic matter depletion by scientists. [For an analysis of the results and recommendations of the long-term study of PEI’s declining soil organic matter, see the article I wrote back in January when the study was released: Declining Soil Organic Matter in PEI: An Indictment of Corporate Farming.]
The following picture was in Irving’s slide presentation – he actually had a short video of this image he played so we could more-fully appreciate and admire the awesomeness of the evolving technology in farming. Well, that technology may suit Washington State, but if the PEI government agrees with Robert Irving that PEI has to compete with that scale of production in order to have a profitable agricultural sector, then there’s not many years of potato farming left in PEI’s future.