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P.E.I. ag unsustainable on current path: report

Prince Edward Island’s agriculture industry is caught in an unsustainable “vicious circle” leading to ever-diminishing returns, not just in terms of farm profits but in innovation and investment.

That’s the assessment of a draft report by the Commission on the Future of Agriculture and Agri-food on Prince Edward Island, released Thursday in advance of a series of consultation workshops with the industry in late November.

The present commodity agriculture system has set up a cycle of “ever-declining profit margins (which) have forced farmers to consolidate and intensify their operations, resulting in negative environmental impacts that lose farmers the respect of the community and, in turn, costs them their own self-respect,” the consultation draft report said.

“Without profit or pride, the next generation of farmers, the ‘new entrants,’ are turning away from agriculture. The industry loses ideas, innovation, and investment, leading, invariably, to even poorer financial returns.”

The 14-member commission was launched in May and is co-chaired by Rory Francis, executive director of the Prince Edward Island BioAlliance and agricultural economist Ed Tyrchniewicz, a retired associate dean of the University of Manitoba’s Asper School of Business. The commission is expected to produce a final report in early December.

The commission proposes several targets to be achieved by 2015, including GDP growth, pesticide reduction, an increase in farmers under 35 years of age and a doubling of investment in research and development.

“The commission members believe, first and foremost, that the industry has a promising future, one characterized not just by survival, but as a source of prosperity for our Island community,” Francis said in a release Thursday. “But we have to move from a production-driven commodity model of agriculture where we are not competitive, to a market- and relationship-driven system of sustainable agriculture.”

Relationships must be improved among farmers, along the supply chain, between industry and government, between industry and the research community, and between the industry and the public, Tyrchniewicz added.

“The industry must establish a ‘virtuous circle’ of profitability, progress and pride. Attitudes and culture can be a major barrier to seizing new opportunity. It’s the young farmers, the innovators and the entrepreneurs that will show the way.”

Rethinking land use

Among its other recommendations, the commission’s draft report calls for a review of the province’s land use policies, to focus on “recommendations that better reflect current economic realities and societal preference.”

Specifically, it points to the limits in the provincial Lands Protection Act that cap individual land ownership at 1,000 acres (3,000 for corporations) and “significantly curtail production potential for farmers, given that the aggregate total of allowable ownership includes woodland, berms, terraces, areas set aside by streams or watercourses, lands not farmable due to excessive slopes, wetlands, or other non-farmable areas.”

The consultation draft also calls for a new, industry-led, “cluster-based” operating model for the research program of the Charlottetown Crops and Livestock Research Centre.

“Clearly, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s support for the research program at the Crops and Livestock Research Centre in Charlottetown has been waning in recent years,” the commission wrote. “While three new scientists have been hired to work in bioscience sector research collaborations, the research program’s overall effort has seen a reduction of resources. Communications with the industry have reached an historic low.”

Among the draft’s other recommendations are:

  • adoption of a “market-led culture, using modern market intelligence tools and techniques to set production planning, processing, and market decisions;”
  • a new industry-led partnership of research agencies, commodity groups, processors and contracted marketing specialists, to plan and execute targeted market development initiatives for P.E.I. agriculture and agri-food products;
  • for the federal Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) and the province’s innovation and advanced learning department to re-establish agriculture and agri-food as a priority sector for economic development;
  • to work with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick on a strategic review of transportation options and potential initiatives to reduce transport costs and enable the Maritime region to be “more competitive in distant markets;”
  • alignment of the provincial tourism and agriculture departments to create economic opportunities for farms, focused on organic foods, farm markets, agri-tourism experiences and value-added products;
  • a “comprehensive strategy” for human resource development, including
    labour market development, training and entrepreneurship, succession
    planning, and emphasis on the “absolute necessity” of attracting new
    entrants to farming and agribusiness;
  • a review of tax policy as it relates to the ag sector, with an eye on eliminating the “competitive disadvantage” to P.E.I. agriculture created by adoption of the harmonized sales tax (HST) in other provinces;
  • an “Energy from Biomass” program providing access to risk capital for private-sector companies and individuals wanting to set up energy businesses in
    P.E.I. that use agriculture-based alternative energy technologies; and
  • continued support for the provincewide Alternate Land Use Services
    Program (ALUS) that provides financial incentives to farmers for environmental projects and protection of air and water quality and biodiversity.

“The industry must be willing to show leadership, and to make
change,” the commission wrote. “Governments must be willing to allocate resources and incentives for the new directions. The industry has no choice but to embrace this path.”

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