Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Something I Want to Believe

For many it will feel like spin, a public relations exercise.  I want to believe it's more than that. The PEI Potato Board issued a news release this week fully supporting the work of the "fish kill committee" appointed after last summer's fish kill in the Trout River watershed in Western PEI. There's more information on all of this below, but let's think about the news release for a moment. First it acknowledges that farm field run-off after a heavy rain was the reason the fish died. That seems obvious to many, but the position of farm organizations has often been that farmers are easy to blame, so people should wait for more proof.  Secondly the release links together environmental sustainability and economic well-being:
" Environmentally sustainable production of potatoes is not only in the best interest of the natural environment and all Islanders, but it is also the most economically sustainable option for growers, the P.E.I. Potato Board says."
It's not that farmers didn't believe that before,  in fact many would say quietly sitting in their kitchens, "We know we can't keep farming the way we have" or "that Sharon Labchuk isn't all wrong you know". It just seemed impossible to say this publicly, that somehow it would be giving in to anti-pesticide radicals.
Now saying the right words, and doing the right things are completely different exercises, and commercial farming carries a lot of risk financially and environmentally.   Farmers make decisions every day that lessen or increase those risks, but clearly stating that  environmental damage is not a necessary or legitimate cost of farming is a good start.

And I think there are other risks coming from the "fish kill" committee's findings. This is from a column I recently wrote:

It was last July when the government appointed a committee to look at why there have been so many fish kills in Barclay Brook, part of the Trout River watershed in Western PEI,  twice in the last two years, and four times in the last decade.  There was a sense of urgency to the committee’s work,  with September  14th originally mentioned as a deadline.  That was extended through the Fall, and committee members were told the government definitely wanted recommendations by November. The report is dated November 14.

It wasn’t so much released to the public as dribbled out in late February.  There’s no reference to it at all on the “News Room” page of the provincial government  website where virtually every development, big and small, is referenced. (It can be found here:  ) The environment minister Janice Sherry was unprepared to comment on it which in itself hints that the release wasn’t stage managed the way these things normally are.

All of this seems a little strange until you see that one of the recommendations involves money, $200,000 a year to take environmentally risky land out of production for good.  With the “release” coming almost in March, rather than last fall the Minister can safely argue that it can’t be included in this year’s budget, and put it off for another year. Now I’m just guessing that’s what’s happened,  but we know the province is broke, and that this kind of expenditure won’t be an easy sell to a public already suspicious of paying farmers to “do the right thing”.

I think the committee did a good job, and was right to resist what could have been seen as an easy fix: increase buffer zones again from 15 to 20 meters.  The fact that even with heavy rains last summer, the fish kill was isolated to one stretch in one tributary of one river, means a lot of other farmers across the province  were doing the right things (that’s the good news). 

And there are some excellent recommendations with minimal costs: using the “dammer-dyker” that creates hundreds of little settling ponds in potato furrows to absorb water, nutrients and pesticides, and even more important, a plan to promote the build-up of organic matter in soils, something that can bind up pesticides on fields and keep them  where they’re needed.  From the report:  “The pilot project’s goal is to increase the amount of organic matter within the crop producing area of a field which in turn would reduce losses of pesticides in field runoff.” (That by the way was also a recommendation in the Roundtable report from almost twenty years ago, I’m just saying)

But it’s the money recommendation that’s the most controversial, and risky for the committee. It obviously felt that tinkering with rules and regulations just wasn’t good enough for some fields, and that they just shouldn’t be used for row cropping, period.  Putting the purchase of this land off for another year, or two, or three means the chance of another fish kill remains. I think it is reasonable to pay farmers fair value for the land, it would have been bought with the understanding that it could generate income, and we all benefit from nutrients and pesticides staying out of waterways. Does that land now get held “hostage” while government decides whether it will pay or not, farmers thinking that if they voluntarily take it out of production there’ll be no reason for compensation. This has the makings of something pretty ugly.  The government must decide whether it will support this recommendation or not, delaying is the worst option.

There are not just carrots, but  sticks at play here too. We’re still waiting for the serious charges under the Federal Fisheries Act against Prince County grower Warren Ellis to be heard in court.

Perhaps the most important thing to come from the committee was acknowledging that one rule doesn’t fit all,  that farmers need to take a step back and not ask how close can I get to the waterway and stay within the rules, but rather ask what do I need to do to keep pesticide and nutrient run-off to a minimum if there’s a heavy rain.  That’s the environmental regulation that will be most productive.

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