By Douglas Campbell, published in the Charlottetown guardian, May 7, 2020
The National Farmers Union (NFU) and most Islanders were relieved when the federal and provincial governments took quick action to address COVID-19. The measures put in place helped curb the spread of the virus and saved many lives here in PEI and in other provinces and territories. The government spokespersons showed caring in addressing sincere messages to the people who are grieving the deaths of family members and friends.We are impressed by the speed and apparent efficiency with which the decision-makers set up emergency funds.
They started with the most obvious vulnerable people, the ones who lost current jobs or their seasonal employment due to lock downs. The governments were also swift to recognize and respond to the many categories of the less noticed people, those who always fall through the cracks for whatever reason.
As politicians’ attention turned to emergency funds for business, people began to watch more carefully. Many people remember the shocking payouts to big business during the 2008 recession, while ordinary people went bankrupt. However in this pandemic scene, all seemed to be going well as specific small and medium business sectors were offered some support to keep their doors open and/or to tide them over until the COVID-19 virus would weaken and disappear.
However, a lot of red flags went up when the PEI Minister of Agriculture announced a $4.7 million relief fund which seems to be destined for the Irvings. Early in the pandemic, the corporation declared that they had a surplus of potatoes. The news media reported that Cavendish Farms advised the P.E.I. potato producers under contract to supply the company with potatoes to “sell to other markets if they can”. And this was said in the midst of closing borders. It was at best unreasonable, maybe even cruel. The tune seems to have changed when the corporation found that they could get public money. Now it appears that the processor plans to take the potatoes from the growers and produce marketable french fries.
When the NFU asked questions about the $4.7 million, the Deputy Minister of Agriculture advised us that the assistance is not going directly to individual farmers but to the “industry”, namely Cavendish Farms. He insisted that farmers will be assisted indirectly because the Irving enterprise will be “able” to pay farmers for their potatoes that otherwise might have been dumped. The Irvings share of the public money will be paid for transporting and storing the processed product.
In our conversations with the authorities we hear a lot of big talk about the “glut” in the market and the damaged “supply chain”. In the time of a pandemic it gives us yet another indication of the weakness and wrongheadedness of the industrial model of food production and processing. Gluts and faulty supply chains are inevitable when any disaster can cause interdependent systems such as transportation and even consumer demands to break down. And to be realistic: there will be other crises in the future. The fragility and lack of resilience of the so-called robust industrial model is evident in times of disaster. This is clear when huge operations control farming and the land, and when highly centralized processing is the norm. There is a supply chain problem when the virus hits Cargills, the giants who control beef in Canada. There is a beef shortage in stores. As well when the Olymel plant in Quebec has to shut down, Atlantic producers may have to put down their hogs. Pork could become a luxury food.
And so it is with Cavendish Farms, restaurants and fast food places are closed because of the virus. The french fry market shrinks. There is a temporary”glut”. The processing company will likely have extra transportation and storage costs. That is some of the risk of doing this kind of industrial business. That’s part of their responsibility. Why should tax payers’ money go toward the ordinary operational expenses of Cavendish Farms? The Irving billionaire behind Cavendish Farms might have to absorb a few percentage points decrease in profits during this time of crisis. This is their risk.
In reality, farmers typically carry most of the risk. The NFU would be happier if the PEI Government would bring growers more directly into a discussion of the best way to spend $4.7 million potato money. The processor has the unbridled freedom to decide whose potatoes to receive, or not. The processor also has the long-standing, unscrutinized privilege of judging a certain percentage of each delivery “unfit” for processing. Farmers need to be able to claim a good portion of the public emergency fund to cover their actual losses.
The National Farmers Union expects the Department of Agriculture to provide protection for farmers. The NFU urges the Minister to be transparent about all negotiations relating to the dispersal of nearly five million dollars. All Islanders expect this.
Douglas Campbell lives on his farm in Southwest Lot 16 and is District Director of the National Farmers Union