P.E.I. nitrate panel urges mandatory rotations

Potato growers on Prince Edward Island would be required to adopt a mandatory three-year crop rotation under recommendations from the provincial commission on nitrates in groundwater.

The commission’s report was presented to the provincial cabinet Tuesday and is expected to be formally tabled in the legislature this fall.

“In the interim, government will begin the process of planning for implementation of the report’s recommendations,” the province said in a release Tuesday.

The report, which points a finger specifically at the province’s potato production sector among others in the buildup of nitrates in P.E.I. groundwater, recommends that “government impose a province-wide mandatory three-year crop rotation in fields under regulated crop

production, with no exemptions.”

The commission also recommended that the provincial ag and environment departments develop a nutrient management and accounting program for crop and livestock producers to ensure nitrate levels in the soil during leaching periods
“are maintained at or below acceptable levels.”

“There is clear evidence of the relationship between groundwater nitrate levels and fertilizer application rates,” the commission wrote. “If too much fertilizer or manure is applied — or if it is applied at a time when it cannot be absorbed by the crop — excess nitrates will leach into groundwater and nearby rivers and streams.

“In Prince Edward Island, this is a problem mainly in potato production areas.”

Such a nutrient management program, the commission wrote, could involve crop rotations as well as plowing forage land that contains legumes in spring rather than fall, to prevent nitrogen from leaching into groundwater over the winter; using a cover crop to trap excess nitrogen left in the soil after potato harvest; and increasing forest cover.

To support development of such plans, the commission recommends training for farmers and/or their advisors on how to complete such plans, plus allocation of resources to handle audits (and farmer appeals) for such a program. It also calls for “realistic financial incentives” to encourage development of nutrient plans as well as increased incentives for manure storage.

Out of potatoes

The commission also recommended new programs to encourage farmers to take land out of potato production “in a way that does not harm producer incomes.” It also calls for support for organic farming and “new high-value crops that require fewer inputs.”

The commission also proposes a ban on application of manure, processing waste and other organic matter on land where there’s no plant growth going on to take up those nutrients.

The report also calls for the environment and ag departments to identify high-nitrate areas, “where national
standards for safe drinking water and healthy aquatic systems have been compromised,” and to take “corrective actions” such as cutting fertilizer use, reducing potato production and managing soil organic matter. It also recommends that nutrient management plans be mandatory in those areas.

The commission also proposed that the provincial Lands Protection Act be amended to allow for the exclusion of environmentally sensitive lands from land-holding limits (where a farmer puts a mandatory three-year crop rotation in place).

Recommendations outside the ag sector call for reduced nutrient loading from sewage treatment systems, adoption of watershed-based water management plans, reduced cosmetic use of fertilizers and improved protection for wetlands that trap nitrates.

“Our report is based on the understanding that the buildup of nitrates in our surface and groundwater did not take place overnight,” said commission chair Armand DesRoches in the province’s release. “The solution will also take a long-term effort, and all Islanders must participate in the solution.”

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