NFU District 1 Convention Friday, April 16th , 2021
It’s been two years since our last National Farmers Union District 1 annual convention. So, being able to gather in person, here today, feels good. And though our numbers can’t be as large as usual; it still means a lot to be able to come together to talk, to share ideas, to question, and to offer solutions and actions.
As district director, my presentation is a review and update of the district’s recent work. The land… Prince Edward Island’s primary resource has been our key focus; as you all know. For the past fifty years the National Farmers Union on Prince Edward Island has been raising the alarm bells regarding the land and the direction in which agriculture was being stirred and what that would mean for farmers, the land, rural communities and consumers.
Unfortunately, many of those predictions, which were not well received by government or other agricultural groups, have either come to pass, or are beginning to be revealed at an accelerated rate, not just here on the Island, but throughout the world.
The NFU was never alone in its messaging that spoke out against neo-liberal policies that promotes free market capitalism and the hoarding of natural resources by the few, and the strengthening of corporations at the expense of governments. It has never been a popular message, but we only have to look around the Island to see the impact of such policies on our environment, our resources, our people and our communities.
There are those who are still determined to put out the message that the NFU is radical and irrelevant, which shows a nerve has been struck in those invested in maintaining the charted course. This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. So I am glad today that we do have our Minister of Agriculture and Land, Bloyce Thompson in attendance, along with the Deputy Minister, Brian Matheson. Welcome. I also welcome the leader of the official opposition, Peter Bevan Baker, and MLA’s Michelle Beaton and Lynn Lund.
The NFU’s two chief concerns regarding the land are: the ever increasing pressure from corporate, and foreign interests on Island land ownership, and their total disregard for the Lands Protection Act. The second is the state of the land itself due to intensive farming practices that are damaging the health of the land, and other interconnected natural resources and contributing to climate change putting us all at risk.
I will address each of the concerns, both which the NFU believes can be tied back to the failure to honour the spirit and intent of the PEI Lands Protection Act, which was ground breaking forward-thinking legislation passed in 1982 to prevent the above. The NFU played a large part in getting the legislation brought forth and passed into law. The Lands Protection Act puts the common good of Islanders, current and future, ahead of the interests of individual entities. For that very reason, from the day it became law, the Lands Protection Act has faced immense pressure from individuals, corporations, and foreign interests with their own agendas to either sell, buy, and use the land for their own gain. And what has been the response of successive governments? Either, through ignorance or an intentional plan, they have allowed the spirit and intent of the law to be devalued while feeding Islanders the line that the letter of the law is being followed as one deal after another in violation of the act is allowed to go through with little to no transparency or accountability.
Where we now find ourselves with corporations like Irving and Vanco and foreign interests like Bliss and Wisdom, being well over the land limits and openly flaunting their contempt of the Act lies on the doorstep of basically every Island government since 1982.
Had those governments stood behind the spirit and intent of the act, PEI would not be part of the world-wide land grab that apparently is now seeing even the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund investing in our land.
Considering land is the primary resource of our small province, with the limited acreage being steadily eaten into by sea erosion, one would think its ownership, stewardship, and designated usage would be the top priority of any Island government regardless of political strip. One would think our elected governments would concern themselves with ensuring our primary resource on which the economy is built serves to enhance the social and economic welfare of all Islanders, not corporations and foreign interests.
The oversight of the act is sorrowfully lacking. It apparently rests with the quasi-judicial body of IRAC, who tells the NFU they know the spirit and intent of the law is not being followed. They concern themselves only with the letter of the law, which must be the apparent direction they have received from our elected representatives.
Does anyone know the last time a government moved to strengthen the act and block loopholes? IRAC has no land data bank; they do not conduct investigations of land transactions unless someone tattles that wrongdoing could be happening. Politicians told them to stop a 2013 investigation into Bliss and Wisdom. They do not follow the money. They admit they depend on honesty, which is not present if one is trying to circumvent the act. The recommendations they make to cabinet on whether or not to approve a land deal are not made public. There is no transparency or accountability to Islanders. Is this how our primary resource should be managed? No. But, considering this is how land transactions are handled, even though we have a law that is the envy of many jurisdictions, it is no wonder entities are in line to take it out from under Islanders.
Who is at fault here? Is it IRAC, department civil servants, or elected Members of the Legislative Assembly in both government and opposition? The NFU would argue all of them have let us down.
It is not acceptable for any of the parties to say, the letter of the law is being followed. Any lawyer, getting paid enough can worm their way around the letter of the law. Spirit and intent is another matter. Our courts know the spirit and intent of the law. They finally appear to be starting to take it into account.
So the question is, why isn’t there a designated department of land with a complete land data base that oversees and investigates every land transaction in this province, including following the money. It would hold to account violators and be fully transparent to the public. As Edith wrote in an op-ed earlier this year, those who are doing no wrong have no need to hide their activity.
What else have we gotten from successive governments in regards to the land? Every number of years we get another land study. The recommendations gather dust. Is that because most of those studies have supported the act, and it is just not in the interest of certain parties to see them implemented and the act followed?
The answer appears obvious. Now we have another study. We can only hope that all the work different groups put into their presentations will actually be considered unlike what we saw with the presentations to the standing committee regarding water.
In its presentation the NFU gave numerous reasons for the land laws not to be changed or lifted. All of our reasons can be viewed in the presentation which is on our Facebook page and website so I won’t go into them, but they are strong justifiable arguments based on the reality of our land base and the welfare of farmers, the failure of the theory of economies of scale, which is putting small and mid-size farms out of business and large operations into massive debt as they produce more for less to the ever increasing benefit of processors. Will it matter? Robert Irving has made it clear he wants the land limits lifted so his process farmers, and most likely his family farm operations, can double their production to feed the French fry plant. Is that a sustainable plan for this Island?
Again, it would appear the answer is obvious. PEI is not Idaho with 36 inches of topsoil and countless acres. When will we get real?
This takes me to the second concern of the NFU, which is the health of the land and the use of it. Successive governments through the study carried out by their own people, know the state of the land. They know the pressure it is under through increasing monoculture cropping. When they are honest, they know serious interconnecting measures have to be undertaken to protect the land, and the environment. We hear statements such as, oh, the organic matter is coming back up. The point, is considering how low it was; where else did it have to go? That is not a good enough argument to continue following the path of the past.
Had the Lands Protection Act been honoured the integrity of our land would have been protected to a large extent. One sector would not now dominate putting everything at risk, especially if disease breaks out or there is a dry summer or ever-expanding production in other regions.
Other agricultural sectors such as dairy and beef would not find themselves being squeezed for land needed to make their operations viable, and finding less and less willingness on the part of the potato sector to trade land, or raise forage crops. The government wouldn’t be called upon to give exemptions under the crop rotation act so that a processing farmer can fill his contract, which begs the question, why is the contract putting the farmer in that position? Many farmers wouldn’t be worried about the contract because the processing family wouldn’t be in direct competition with them. For that same reason they wouldn’t be worried about overworking the land, purchased at high market value, so they can make this year’s payment on an ever thinning profit margin. Perhaps most of all they wouldn’t be worried the contract might not be honoured, because of a world pandemic. And the government wouldn’t be scurrying to come up with public tax dollars to make sure such contracts are honoured because they allowed the power of the processor to expand to the point of dictating to government how things will work.
The NFU is still trying to get a clear answer from government if Cavendish Farms took the 4.7 million dollar deal worked out last spring to process and store contracted potatoes. Transparency in government has pretty well gone missing. In thinking about this scenario, I remember our finance minister saying in the fall that there was no reason Islanders couldn’t pay their property taxes because she had checked with the banks and Islanders had lots of money in their accounts. My question would be, did she check Irving’s account before the 4.7 million dollar deal was put together?
The NFU had great hopes with the election of Dennis King and the Conservative government. During the election, King told us he was interested in working on the land issue and he would see MLA’s were educated on the Land’s Protection Act and IRAC’s recommendations would be made public, and if cabinet denied a deal Islanders would know why. There was even hope of the start of a land bank as another avenue to protect land and make it available to current and new farmers.
The Conservatives first mandate is at the half way point and we have seen little accomplished yet. The land ownership issue and the act are not being raised. There is no movement on land banking yet money losing golf courses can be kept operating. And of course, there is the Irving legal challenge.
What is the real reality of what is going on inside of government? Has the power that was given away over the years to corporations been so great it can’t be taken back? Is the pressure concerning threats around jobs so great that government submits like a mouse before the corporate lion? Are the back room players making sure the MLA’s bend to their will so their objectives are not interfered with? There are lots of questions but little transparency in the answers. The one thing we know for certain is the Lands Protection Act is useless without the government will to enforce it. So what is so hard about getting a government to follow, enforce, and strength its own law?
Had the lands protection act been honoured we might not find ourselves in the place we now are in regards to water. The warnings of climate change have been with us for sometime and the farming community was told to prepare and diversify, and yes, take accountability for the role intensive or industrialized farming practices play in global warming. Adherence to the Lands Protection Act would have helped in the preparation because one sector most likely would have had far more difficulty gaining dominance. Instead look at where we now stand and the way the water issue was handled. No complete strategy was put in place to make sure that should water be necessary in crop production its use would be tied to the use and care of the land. Robert Irving has made public his belief that 500 million more pounds of potatoes can be achieved for French fry processing with the use of water. As one farmer put it, “those who think water is the answer are going to be disappointed if the organic matter is not there in their soil. Other farmers quietly admit irrigation has not given them the desired return on investment.
Others are fearful, that now government allowed holding ponds, they won’t get a contract if they don’t irrigate, and financially they don’t believe it is viable on what they are getting paid. They had quietly hoped government wouldn’t allow irrigation until the science was in.
Interestingly there is no public talk about the problems irrigation has caused for those currently irrigating. Things like expense of equipment, the cost of being labour intensive and time consuming, storage issues, and again small return on investment. There is also another issue. Water vapour is considered a greenhouse gas and studies are being done on how irrigation contributes to global warming. So if some farmers feel that way why aren’t their voices out there loud and clear? It is simple, but sad. Fear.
So now we have a concerned public and an angry sector that feels vilified and defensive and taking it out on any who dare raise concerns about a resource that everyone depends on. And all farmers are wearing the decision made by government through pressure.
But what is most interesting is the strategy government has taken to deflect attention from their actions. They are pointing fingers at other parties and blaming them for the vilifying of farmers. Has anyone noticed who is staying quiet in the background, while farmers are pitted against farmers and the public? Divide and conquer has long been a powerful strategy.
We have government officially saying let science be the deciding factor. Science which is well down the road, On the other hand we have some MLA’s running around telling people, there is lots of water down there. So why should the public and farmers trust the government to protect the water because they have not protected the land.
I heard a statement that I think fits here, ‘We can’t depend on science to save us from ourselves. We can’t just keep throwing inputs at the problems and expecting a different outcome.
It is highly unfortunate that certain people in the agricultural sector and government are belittling the concerns, experiences, and knowledge of others, many of whom have extensive environmental, and agricultural knowledge, and an understanding that everything is interconnected. It is helping no one, least of all farmers. The attack on the media by certain parties is out of place. How quickly the processing industry has forgotten that the media has catered to them for years with few hard questions. They had no complaints when they were getting top billing. Now that the media is allowing other voices to be heard and is doing their job by asking long overdue questions, they are suddenly the enemy. Remember, good media is an essential part of a good democracy.
The social contract is breaking down and many Islanders are being left behind. We see it with the land, housing, accessibility to mental health and opportunities for a meaningful future. Meanwhile corporations keep taking more from government and the people while not filling the promise to give back.
As our resources become concentrated in the hands of the few, social unrest is stirring throughout the world. It is starting to stir here. Many of our politicians are feeling attacked because most do go into politics with the hope of making real change. But I remember a very prominent and highly respected Island politician once saying, a politician has to look at the criticism coming at them and find the value in it, rather than taking it personal. If our elected politicians can’t relate to the issues facing Islanders and work for the common good, what hope do we have?
Now, more than ever, if we want land to remain in the hands of current and future Islanders, and for PEI to be a healthy food Island with a substantial number of independent farmers making a decent living in sync with the environment, we need to be working together to build a sustainable future. Government has to take back the power from corporations and begin to work with all the players to give Islanders a sustainable future. There is no economy with no environment and we certainly can’t separate agriculture and the environment.
Strong government leadership is needed to build an agricultural sector of which everyone can be proud. There are great farmers out there. If we want them producing healthy quality food for consumers, free of crushing corporate control then government needs to invest in them and they definitely need to invest in the land.
All farmers have to be willing to look at what doesn’t work and make the changes while we can. Life is change and it is not a failure to pursue a new path that may deliver a far bigger reward.
The public as consumers needs to start looking at their role in the pressures and stress facing farmers. They want perfect cheap food from an imperfect system. They want convenience. Lettuce washed and chopped for them, accessible all year. They want processed food. It was great news to hear the sales for fresh table stock was up in 2020. It meant people were eating potatoes filled with vitamins and minerals.
Large corporate food chains and fast food restaurant chains have to start looking at their role in the pressures facing farmers and the pressure on the environment. Does a french fry really have to be long? Some of them are advertising with great pride they are selling sustainable beef? Are they going to start sourcing sustainable French fries?
What the NFU and others do today is our legacy for future generations. Denial and compliance take us one step closer to extinction. It is time we really were in this all together and the common good becomes the goal.
While there are days our work seems futile, it is then I begin to think like a farmer and remember a seed may lay dormant for a long time before all the elements of nature come together to stimulate the process of sprouting, growth and harvest.