Weather, high costs, labour top of mind as P.E.I. farmers prepare to plant their crops

With another growing season quickly approaching on P.E.I., several factors are on farmers' minds as they prepare to plant this year's crops.

'We take what what we get from Mother Nature,' says Island potato grower

Fly with us over a seaside potato field as spring looms on P.E.I.

1 month ago
Duration 1:07
Another growing season is quickly approaching on Prince Edward Island, meaning farmers are getting ready to plant. A CBC News crew used a drone to capture video of an unplowed early-spring field, complete with small rivers and muddy tracks where water has been running off.

Songbirds chirped in the spring sun at John Visser's potato farm in Victoria, P.E.I., on Thursday — as his nearby red-dirt fields waited to be plowed and sown for the year, and workers bagged what's left of last year's spuds.

The mild weather in recent months has many P.E.I. farmers reflecting on what's in store for their crops this year, as some say signs from Mother Nature point toward a promising start for the upcoming growing season, likely within weeks.

"Every year is different," Visser, who's also chair of the P.E.I. Potato Board, told CBC News in his farm yard surrounded by parked farm equipment.

"You go into the year hoping that the work that you're going to do is going to do the job, that it gets done, [and] you're gonna have some money left over at the end of it."

As climate change brings less predictable conditions for the Island's food producers, Visser told CBC News it's still too early in the year to say for sure how this season will play out.

But there are plenty of promising signs: The days are getting longer, the ice once covering his fields has melted, the sun is shining, and the soil is drying up nicely.

There was only one major snowstorm this winter, too.

Visser said though it would have been good to see the ground covered with snow a little longer, "We take what what we get from Mother Nature." 

John Visser stands for an interview in a ball cap and sunglasses. Behind him is a farm yard filled with farm equipment.
'You don't know what you're going to get for rain or snow in the next two to three weeks,' says Victoria, P.E.I., potato farmer John Visser. 'Time will tell.' (Sheehan Desjardins/CBC News)

High costs a challenge

But that doesn't necessarily mean Island growers will have smooth sailing from here. 

Visser said the costs to operate farms have soared higher in the last few years than he's ever seen, a big cause for concern.

"Just seems to be no end to it," he said. "This is my 46th crop ... and it just adds to the stress and just the cost.

"You're dealing in much bigger numbers, real quick."

Farm buildings and machinery beside a potato field in spring.
An aerial view over John Visser's potato farm in Victoria, P.E.I., on Thursday (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

The P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture said it's hearing a lot of those concerns about skyrocketing expenses, too. 

"We have lots of input costs," said Keisha Rose Topic, the federation's president. "Fertilizer had been up very high the last few years.

"They're saying it's going to go down slightly this year, but it still remains very high, and fuel also."

Rose Topic said labour is another challenge. Technology is constantly changing and improving, which means finding people trained to operate newer machinery can be difficult.

On top of that, she said farmers are also grappling with a changing climate, and with it an increase in crop-harming pests such as wireworm.

"Wireworms, specifically in potatoes, has really grown in population over the past 10 years ... and spread throughout the whole Island," she said. "And that is directly caused by lack of frost in the winter.

"That frost would kind of kill off and help. And it hasn't really been there yet." 

Keisha Rose Topic stand for an interview outside in a white shirt and black jacket. There is a small pond, grass and trees behind her.
'It does take quite a bit of resilience to kind of take those things on, and keep wanting to do it,' says Keisha Rose Topic, president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture (Sheehan Desjardins/ CBC News)

'The start is not what counts'

Rose Topic said depending on the weather, many farmers will start planting their crops in the next five weeks or so, for which dry ground is ideal.

Then it will be time to wait for the right amount of rain, enough sun, and little bit of wind. 

"It always amazes me, to be honest, the optimism," she said, as she sees farmers "go into the spring with a new hope."

"It does take quite a bit of resilience to kind of take those things on, and keep wanting to do it," Rose Topic said.

Back at Victoria Potato Farm, Visser said he is in no rush to plant yet.

"The start is not what counts," he said. "It's nice to have a good start — but an important finish is way better." 

Farmers fields are seen with reddish-brown soil in spring
An aerial view over John Visser's potato farm in Victoria, P.E.I., on Thursday (Shane Hennessey/CBC)