Ian Petrie Blog Post re: PEI Deep Well Irrigation


A Man On a Mission

I’ve always respected Daryl Guignon. He spent his working days and now his retirement teaching and advocating on behalf of the natural world.  And he’s done most of it not from the comfort of an academic’s office or university classroom,  but with hip waders on, in the cold and wet,  outside. He was always first on-site when there was a fish kill, or some other environmental crisis. He’d speak quietly but passionately about what had happened, and if asked, why. He’d never condemn farmers as a group, and would often acknowledge that many farmers are doing a better job protecting the environment.  Now he’s become the principal opponent to issuing new permits for deep water wells, and he’s definitely making headway. 

On Tuesday Environment minister Janice Sherry threw the issue back to the Potato Board, saying it has to convince the public that the science is sound, and irrigation can be done with minimal environmental impact. That followed revelations that the Board and Cavendish Farms had hired two former Liberal insiders (Chris Leclair and Cynthia King) to lobby MLA’s (the Liberal caucus essentially) about the merits of the plan.  Both of these developments indicate a proposal that’s in deep trouble.  Asking the Potato Board to convince skeptical Islanders is like asking Don Cherry to convince people sick of hockey violence to start liking it, it ain’t going to happen. In my opinion the Board has taken on an advocacy role in this not because all of its grower members want it but  because the public would be even more hostile if it were just Irving owned Cavendish Farms making the case.

And let’s be honest, Cavendish Farms does have a case to make. All its major competitors in the french fry racket work with growers who have access to irrigation. Cavendish itself operates a plant in Jamestown North Dakota and  buys from growers there who use irrigation, so the company knows the benefits. It also knows what can happen if there is a serious drought on PEI. In 2001 Cavendish had to import millions of pounds of potatoes from Maine and Manitoba to keep its big customer Wendy’s happy with french fries that droop over the front of the box (that takes big brick-like potatoes).  That’s when it started lobbying the provincial government to increase the use of irrigation here. Climate change, and the worry that sufficient rain can longer be counted on, has made this more critical.  Again let’s be honest, the real benefits of irrigation go to Cavendish too.  Unless we have several drought years in a row, the economics for potato growers investing in irrigation is very marginal.  And many growers worry that if new permits are allowed Cavendish will make having irrigation a condition of getting a contract, and that will be too expensive for growers with small contracts.

Daryl Guignon and others have also made important arguments against the plan. Much of the science on groundwater, including the limits to how much water and flow a stream can lose and still maintain aquatic life, comes from other places.  That’s not to say the science is wrong, but this isn’t dryland farming with huge sections of land devoted exclusively to agriculture. There’s hardly a watershed here that doesn’t have to support businesses, people’s homes, and wildlife, and there’s a strong feeling that despite the jobs and farm income that comes from producing french fries, one can’t take precedence over the other.

And Guignon is especially insistent that irrigation can’t be used to make up for poor soil quality. Healthy soils with adequate organic matter absorb rain and hold it for dry periods. Beat up soils that are hard packed cause rain to run-off somewhere else, usually ditches and low points in fields,  taking much needed moisture and soil particles along with it.

And there’s no question that the potato industry is guilty until proven innocent when it comes to environmental promises.   Fishkills, nitrates in groundwater, dead zones in rivers,  don’t generate  a lot of confidence. It may be the sins of the few causing the punishment of the many,  but that’s just the way it is, and no amount of lobbying or political arm twisting is going to change that.

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