Prince Edward Island needs more potatoes

Potato processor says the province’s farms are too small and urges changes to P.E.I.’s farmland ownership regulations

Prince Edward Island has a spud conundrum.

Potato yields in Manitoba and Alberta have jumped for the last five to eight years and are now at 350 to 400 hundredweight per acre.

Meanwhile, average yields on P.E.I. have been stuck around 290 cwt. per acre.

Cavendish Farms, which operates a potato processing plant in New Annan, P.E.I., has a solution for the stagnant yields: farmers on the Island need to get bigger and more efficient.

“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,” Cavendish Farms president Robert Irving said, as reported by the Journal Pioneer in Summerside, P.E.I.

“He (the producer) 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.”

Irving made the comment in early November during a meeting of the province’s standing committee on communities, land and the environment.

P.E.I. has a law limiting the amount of farmland that can be owned and operated, restricting ownership to 1,000 acres of arable land for individuals and 3,000 acres for corporations.

The acreage limits include owned and rented land. If someone owns 700 acres of land, for example, they could farm 300 only acres of leased land.

Complicating matters, P.E.I. has a crop rotation regulation in which farmers can grow potatoes only one in every three years on the same piece of land.

This means a potato producer with 1,000 acres can grow only 333 acres of potatoes a year, on average.

Cavendish thinks that figure is too low and is hindering producer investment in equipment and technology.

Irving suggested the limits should be doubled. That way an individual with 2,000 acres could grow nearly 700 acres of potatoes annually.

The Lands Protection Act has been in place since 1982, so conversations about changing the farmland ownership limits are not new.

“It’s an ongoing discussion and has been, for many years,” said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada who lives in P.E.I.

“I think most growers were entirely in support of the regulations when they were put in…. The basic premise was to prevent someone from owning all of the land.”

There are about 180 potato growers on the Island based on information from P.E.I. Potatoes.

The potato crop in the province, which is the largest producer in Canada, has been at 84,000 to 87,000 acres for the last five years. Acreage is unlikely to increase even if land ownership limits were changed because there’s only so much land that’s suitable for potatoes.

“Based on the land availability … we’re pretty close to (the maximum) what we can grow,” MacIsaac said.

If potato producers could get their hands on more land, they could possibly take advantage of economies of scale and produce more potatoes per acre.

That may be true, but MacIsaac isn’t convinced that bigger farms and higher yields are the answer for P.E.I.’s potato industry. If Cavendish is worried about farmer investment and better yields, maybe it should pay farmers more for their potatoes, MacIsaac said.

“That’s the way I lean. Instead of us trying to grow a cheaper product, I would like to see us be paid a little more for the product that we’re growing,” he said.

“If the profitability is higher on the grower’s side, then they’ll have more money to invest (in the farm).”

This summer, Cavendish closed its fresh potato processing plant in P.E.I., citing a shortfall of potatoes on the Island. In 2017 the company had to import about 150 million pounds of potatoes from Manitoba, Alberta, New Brunswick and Maine to supply spuds to its french fry plant in New Annan.

A drought in the summer of 2017 cut potato yields in the province, forcing the company to find potatoes elsewhere.

“Plans are already in place to import 65 million lb. this year (2018),” Ron Clow, general manager of Cavendish Farms, said in August.

“This practice is not sustainable. There simply aren’t enough potatoes on P.E.I. for both our lines of business.”

Farming on the island

  • The total land area of Prince Edward Island is 1.4 million acres.
  • About 575,000 acres are cleared for agricultural use.
  • The Island has 1,353 farms (2016 Census)

Source: Province of P.E.I.

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