“Talk of Dirt Comim”: PEI, An Agricultural Gem

This country is a very big place. Last week I found myself in an agricultural gem, Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. I gave a presentation on Eastern Canadian grain markets in Summerside PEI at the PEI Annual Cereal and Oilseed Conference. It was my third time speaking in PEI over the last 10 years and by default, my third visit in a PEI winter. I could have never imagined in those first two visits, I’d be talking about a possible coronavirus pandemic affecting grain prices and slamming equity markets around the world on a third visit.

Earlier Thursday morning I went out early to catch some drive thru breakfast at the local Summerside Tim Hortons. Heavy rain had turned into snow overnight and the breeze whipped off the Northumberland Strait as if it was coming from the North Pole. There was snow everywhere, and as the window opened to receive my coffee, all kinds of snow dropped all over me. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking, this snow is enhanced by a sea breeze, which I’m not used to. It reminded me that despite how cold I felt, we manage as farmers to excel at agriculture in places like Summerside PEI.

I was asked a question after my presentation about why as Canadians we should continue to try produce food and agricultural commodities in a world where big players like Brazil, the United States and the Black Sea region are increasingly dominating. I was a bit taken aback by the question, but maybe it came from the fact, that on Prince Edward Island, from a farming perspective, things might at times seem overwhelming.

I answered the question the same way I would answer it anywhere in Canada. I gave the example of Brazil and its 123 MMT of soybeans that it is expected to produce this year. I told the grower I’ve heard from some speakers in Canada who say the Brazilians are going to bury us, as they are the least cost producer in the world and their soybean production is vast. Their potential to produce grains are huge. There is no way we can compete against such efficiency.

However, in Canada we do and the reason we do, is we’re efficient enough to satisfy our domestic market and many other international markets. The basis for grains in places like Dresden Ontario, Davidson Saskatchewan, Ste. Ange Quebec or Grande Prairie Alberta tells us what the value of our grain is compared to everybody else. So, in other words, just take a look at what we do, we’re competing against the Brazilians just fine and don’t really have to apologize.

However, despite that the Brazilians and the Black Sea farmers are just getting bigger and more efficient. You can understand for a moment that young PEI farmer asking me that question. He’s sitting in a meeting listening to me tell him how awash the world is in grain and he’s in the far corner of Atlantic Canada with 4 feet of snow on the ground. When May hits, he and his fellow PEI farmers scratch the red earth, which is PEI and make things grow. It is not Brazil. However, it is idyllic and an agricultural dynamo in its own right. Potatoes might be king, but there is world of other crops too.

The key is producing crops that end users want. However, the other key on Prince Edward Island is finding a way to survive in a harsh climate far away from markets. This isn’t new. It’s been like this ever since PEI was settled and of course became the birthplace of Canadian confederation.

I learned that peas are becoming a very viable crop in PEI, partly because island peas are higher in protein that peas from Alberta. There is also a market for PEI mustard in Europe mainly because of the quality. PEI sellers can’t get enough of it, as buyers like the closer proximity to Europe. Farmers are into cover crops, high yield experiments and I even heard one company representative talk about doing research on Faba beans silage in Newfoundland. The season is too short to get beans, but the silage is another great protein source for Newfoundland dairy cattle.

Islanders say, “Talk of Dirt Comin, which means anything in weather that isn’t sunshine. After a rough start planting crops last year, Hurricane Dorian struck on September 6th ruining much of the crop. Like everywhere else, there are problems. Soybean acreage is set to be cut again in 2020 down from about 60,000 acres a few year ago to just over 30,000 this year. We simply need better prices as soybean yields on PEI aren’t Midwest yields. Needless to say, growers are finding ways to survive. That’s the PEI way, finding a way to compete and survive in a part of the world off the beaten track.

I also heard quite a bit about the impact of climate change on PEI and Canadian agriculture. What made this unique is many farmers in Central and Western Canada don’t want to believe in Climate change. However, in PEI, it’s on the agenda. I found it so refreshing. We even talked about how corn can now grow healthier because of the increasing Co2 in the atmosphere.

It’s like I cleaned off a dirty window and stared at the blank page before me. Simply put, my days in PEI this past week were a reminder of the diversity on Canadian agriculture. Amid the snowflakes, short season and language and cultural differences, we find ways to survive and even thrive together. The future is never very clear. The Coronavirus is verification to that. It seems our world is reeling. However, the determination to forge our own Canadian way remains strong. The last few days spent with Prince Edward Island farmers is testament to that.