By Michele Beaton, MLA District 5 Mermaid-Stratford
Official Opposition Critic for Agriculture and Land
Facing an Agricultural Nightmare
The impacts of Dorian on the agriculture industry reach far into our food chain. Those impacts require a strong response that goes past providing an insurance claim to just get farmers through the loss. While insuring loss is important, there must also be a proactive approach to manage for the next loss event. Current policy and programming by the Department of Agriculture is leading many to ask: what is its purpose? Is it to administer crop insurance and claims? Or, is it to provide vision and leadership?
It is well known Dorian had a major impact on the 2019 corn and soybean harvest. We have all seen reports and evidence of this damage in media. But did you know there is another scary secret that is not being talked about and that it directly effects our food chain? The farming industry is all intertwined. What impacts one sector will also impact other sectors. For everyone’s benefit, let me shed a little light on what this nightmare is and what our farmers are facing.
My great-grandfather always used to say half the food and half the fuel on Groundhog Day, which is February 2nd. This means Groundhog Day is the halfway point of winter. If you had burned through more than half of your winter fuel and food stockpile by then, you had better have another source to get you through to spring. Unlike the movie Groundhog Day, if you don’t have it right by this day, you will not get an infinite number of retries to get it right.
Most farmers are small, hybrid farms. They have crops, some livestock, and maybe some pasture for forages. To help get their livestock through the winter, they depend on feedstock, of which there are three types: forages such as hay and corn silage; grains such as corn, barley, and oats; and oilseeds – think soybean. Farmers stockpile these feeds for their livestock to eat throughout the winter. What they have not been able to stockpile through harvesting, they would buy from another farmer.
The truth is, there are farmers who are short on supplies. The normal reserves they have traditionally depended on are also experiencing shortages. We have had a couple of poor years for crop yields. Complicating these shortages is the destruction left behind by Dorian. These factors have been driving the cost of feedstock up and up making it impossibly expensive for these farmers to survive. These farmers are in desperate shape and need help. For them, we definitely need that Agri Recovery claim.
The new reality
However, we need to do more than just provide insurance against losses. We need vision and leadership. Recent yields and weather events – locally, nationally, and worldwide – all point to a need to be prepared against inevitable events that could cause major damages to our agricultural resources.
Historically, the Department of Agriculture had offices around PEI with resources that would go out to farms and assist farmers when they needed help. The department even ran small programs that helped offset costs such as soil testing. Now it seems the department has surrendered the field and is largely concerning itself with running claims made against losses. I will say it again; crop insurances are necessary. However, the department needs to be more forward thinking than limiting itself to an insurance role.
We Need a Sustainable Agriculture Policy and Plan
Farmers need government to have an effective strategic plan for agriculture and to govern within it. They need government to take a leadership role in education and research. We need a plan that realizes the interconnectivity of our agricultural industry.
For example, we need grain and forage growers. These crops have historically been in a 3-year crop rotation. However, planting these crops is declining. This is partly because they aren’t high margin cash crops. Farmers need to make a living and these crops alone do not provide that ability. Yet their necessity cannot be denied.
For example, Island beef producers are known for their quality beef. Demand for PEI beef is increasing. This means our local plant is needing more beef from cattle farmers. To meet this demand, we need to address the increasing costs of feedstock. Given the challenges we are facing in being able to feed the livestock we currently have, the ability to meet this increase in demand with Island beef will be left in doubt. This cannot be borne on the shoulders of farmers alone. Without a solid sustainable agriculture plan, we will continue to experience negative ripple effects throughout the industry that needlessly impact our farmers, their families, our economy, and jobs for Islanders.
The bottom line, Islanders need farmers to be successful. The expectation for farmers to be satisfied with surviving on crop insurance alone is asking them to go against every fiber of their being. It is an unacceptable fiction. Farmers need a Department of Agriculture that is a leader and not simply an insurance adjuster. We need to strike a balance between having enough grain and forage crops for our livestock while providing farmers with the supports that enable them to make a living. We do this through implementing sustainable agriculture practice. When we develop these policies, it ensures success in the entire industry.
That’s a big picture view. My question to Minister Thompson: What is your government doing to create and support sustainable agriculture on PEI?