Saturday, 27 February 2016

It's Hard Being Green When You're in the Red

A farmer said this to me about a month ago and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind.  I tried to work the idea into a column that inlcluded some new information, how the biggest buyer of potatoes on PEI, Irving owned Cavendish Farms,  had hit the jackpot from the low Canadian dollar.  Could the company share some of this found money with farmers? Would it? We'll have to wait and see.

Time to Loosen the Purse Strings Mr. Irving: We’ll All Benefit

It was the kind of article you’d expect in Acres USA, the Canadian Organic Grower, or from the Rodale Institute.  Instead “Cover Crops, a Farming Revolution” was in the business section of the New York Times ( . True blue meat and potatoes mid-western U.S. farmers singing the praises of non-cash crops like hairy vetch and cereal rye. These are your very conventional corn and soybean growers who’ve done very well over the last two decades. Between U.S. government subsidies, and ethanol mandates, they’ve made some serious money, but they’ve watched their soils deteriorate from short rotations, and worry about extreme weather events, high heat and drought.  “Our corn was wilting when temperatures hit 103 degrees” said one farmer, “I felt like I had a gorilla on my shoulder.” The number of farmers using cover crops is still small, but they report big benefits, increased yields, less need for fertilizer and pesticides, erosion control,  and the ability to withstand droughts.  Organic matter levels that had gone from as high as 10% to below 2% from constant cash cropping, are going up again, at about 1% every two years.  The article quotes an agriculture department official,  “We’ve never seen anything taken up as rapidly as using cover crops,” said Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

PEI needs a cover crop revolution too, and its already started on some farms.  The Hogg family  near Kensington just won the Gilbert Clements Environmental Award. In the Guardian  Adam Hogg was quoted: “We’ve done a lot of cover cropping during the past two or three years on all our potato ground… and we are trying to reduce the amount of fall plowing as best we can.” John Hogg said  “We try very hard to make sure we have a cover crop on the land. We’re constantly looking for something that is better than barley to hold the ground better and ensure it’s not blowing soil away on us.” Contrast that with what many saw in late January: bare fields, frigid weather turning soil particles into freeze dried coffee, and valuable top soil blown into ditches and neighbouring back yards.

The Hoggs are the first to admit they’ve got some advantages over many other potato growers. They grow varieties that can be harvested earlier than the long-season russet Burbank that french fry makers demand, time to plant a cover crop in the Fall.  I’m going to suggest two other things the Hoggs have, a fierce determination to protect the health of their soils, and profitability.  It costs money to grow a crop that will be plowed in rather than harvested.  They sell to a potato chip market that pays fairly, while many other potato growers cope with at best marginal contracts with Cavendish Farms.  The Irving owned company has convinced enough farmers  that Cavendish is uncompetitive because of the lack of irrigation,  higher energy and transportation costs,  with its big U.S. counterparts in the U.S. North-West.  Growers have reluctantly accepted price cuts and rollovers for several years now and tried to survive growing cash crops like soybeans in rotations rather than true cover crops.  That’s got to change, and here’s why it should now. 

The low Canadian dollar is giving Cavendish Farms a windfall of money, between $20 to $30 million at least by my calculations, simply by carrying on business as usual. The 70+ cent dollar is just where it was in the mid 1990’s when the Irvings and McCains couldn’t wait to build new french fry plants here. The McCains have left (and probably regret it), but Cavendish carries on. I encourage, I implore Cavendish to share some of this “found money” with growers, and for growers to insist that it does. 

And don’t stop there. Keep working on new varieties like Prospect that can be harvested earlier with less fertilizer, demand more research into cover crops that can contain wireworm, improve soil fertility, and let’s make bare fields in the fall as unacceptable as drunk driving .  If  there isn’t time for a cover crop, then at least spread straw to slow down erosion.  All of these come with costs.  According to the Times article the U.S. government subsidizes cover crops there, and some states like Maryland pay the full cost of cover crops for farms next to Chesapeake Bay. I don’t expect that here. What I do hope for is that farmers here are paid fairly so they can make better decisions, bring the same determination to improving  soil quality as the Hogg family. As one farmer said to me: “It’s hard being green when you’re in the red.”

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