As president of the National Farmers Union, I was pleased to see recent calls to work together to improve the situation of P.E.I.’s potato farmers and rural communities. I am proud to have been elected to lead our organization, with its mandate to promote the betterment of farmers in the attainment of their economic and social goals, to promote a higher standard of community life in agriculture, and to work jointly with any other person or organizations for the attainment of its objects, among other educational and legislative goals.
Contrary to recently published implications, the NFU actively campaigns for the needs of farmers and is eager to be included in discussions about the fate of potato farmers on P.E.I. If the NFU on P.E.I. had been invited to participate in the private discussions that must have occurred prior to the announcement of a $4.7-million funding announcement, we would have been able to raise our concerns at the table in a spirit of co-operative and constructive discussion and debate. Calls for increased transparency, clear guardrails on spending, and a basic appreciation for the economic realities facing our farmers should be enthusiastically welcomed in a province that clearly values the benefits farms bring to our communities.
We compare the provincial government’s behind-closed-doors approach to COVID-19 support for the P.E.I. potato sector with the roll-out of federal emergency funds. While there are questions about the implementation of the federal CERB program, at least the criteria to qualify for relief has been very clearly spelled out. Additionally, the federal government is offering loans – not gifts — to businesses, which must be paid back. Yet in P.E.I. the public has no information about the criteria for the nearly $5 million offered to the Irvings’ Cavendish Farms, and the King government or Minister of Agriculture Boyce Thompson have given no indication of any repayment requirement. Since we are in a democracy, we must ask the necessary questions about these public spending decisions.
We understand that a spokesperson for Cavendish Farms on Island Morning indicated that Cavendish Farms has not yet decided if it will participate in any COVID-19 relief programs from government. We are very happy to hear there is still room to evaluate both the intent, substance and optics of their participation in this proposed scheme.
Perhaps the best course of action would be for Cavendish to honour their contracts with farmers, since the company’s line was that farmers were free to seek other markets for their potatoes, not that the company planned to break their contracts. Unless perhaps the comments from Prince Edward Island Potato Board spokesperson, Greg Donald, on Island Morning (May 7) saying, “Let’s be clear …. if this $4.7 million wasn’t provided to Cavendish Farms these potatoes would not have been processed …” were meant to be taken as him speaking not on behalf of P.E.I.’s potato farmers, but instead for Cavendish Farms and Robert Irving? If Cavendish Farms will assume these storage and processing costs as part of the risk of doing business, and fulfill their contracts, then perhaps these government funds would be available to help P.E.I..’s farmers directly.
Katie Ward is the president of the National Farmers Union. She is a ninth generation family farmer who operates a mixed farm at West Carleton-March, northwest of Ottawa.