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Cavendish Farms argues that legal limits on the size of PEI family farms are too restrictive

Cavendish Farms president Robert Irving, left, and Jubs Bristow, vice-president of agriculture for Cavendish Farms, take questions from MLAs during a meeting of the standing committee on communities, land and environment on Thursday. The two have recommended the province double the potato farm land limits. (Courtesy: Journal Pioneer / Stu Neatby)

During a meeting of Prince Edward Island’s standing committee on communities, land and environment, Robert Irving - president of potato processor Cavendish Farms - brought attention to the declining numbers of potato farms on the Island.

Since 1997, the number of potato farms on the Island has declined from 460 to 186.

Such a trend towards less but larger potato farms is seen almost everywhere in the world. However, on Prince Edward Island the Lands Protection Act limits the maximum size of land a landowner or corporation can own. The Island currently limits individual landholdings to 1,000 acres for individual farms and 3,000 for corporate entities.

Robert Irving said the province should double the land limit allowed under the Lands Protection Act in order to allow potato farmers to increase their yields.

Irving said crop rotation is a sound agricultural practice. This limits potato harvests to once every three years on individual plots of land, something that is legally enforced on Prince Edward Island. But, he said smaller producers need to be allowed larger acreages.

Irving said a limit of 2,100 acres instead of 1,000 would allow family farms to plant potatoes on 700 acres and rotate this crop over a three-year period.

Robert Irving:

“The challenge with the Island is that the farmers are not able to get the yields, quality and supply of potatoes off their fields year after year.”

“He has to get a proper yield and therefore he has to have the scale, and the scale is by having more acres to grow his potatoes.”
Cavendish Farms operates a frozen french fry factory in New Annan and is the largest purchaser of potatoes in P.E.I. The company announced in July it was getting out of the market for table potatoes in order to focus its P.E.I. operations exclusively on frozen foods. The company closed its plant in O’Leary, which employed 40 workers, over the summer.

Irving said this was due to an inadequate supply of potatoes on P.E.I. He said the company has increasingly been forced to rely on a supply of potatoes from New Brunswick, Maine and other locations.

PC MLA Brad Trivers asked if Cavendish Farms agreed with the “spirit” of the Island’s Land Protection Act, which he said was designed to keep land in the hands of smaller family farm operations.

Jubs Bristow, Cavendish Farms vice-president of agriculture, said family farms need to be bigger in order to be viable. He said agricultural regulations, which require three-year crop rotations, meant larger fields were needed.

Jubs Bristow, Cavendish Farms vice-president of agriculture:

“That’s the challenge we’re facing here today, is how do you manage the three-year crop rotation.”
Green Party MLA Peter Bevan-Baker raised the issue of viability of potato farms on P.E.I. He said potato profit margins – at 1.8 per cent in P.E.I. – are much lower than the profit margins in New Brunswick (6.5 per cent) or nationally (6 per cent).

Bevan-Baker suggested an agricultural industry composed of fewer-but-larger potato farms may not be more economically or environmentally sustainable.

Irving said the key issue was the lower potato yields per acre.

Robert Irving:

“That gets back to the fundamental challenges we have with supplement irrigation, not having water.”

“If you have drought conditions like we've had the last several years, the potato is not getting the yield.”
Prince Edward Island’s potato farmers have seen low yields over the last two summers due to a lack of rain.

Although the recommendations presented to the standing committee on Thursday did not include a mention of supplemental irrigation, Cavendish Farms has argued the province lift its 16-year moratorium on the practice.

The province is awaiting the release, due in 2021, of a study by the Canadian Rivers Institute on the state of the Island’s rivers.