The P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and Land had 934 active management plans on file at the start of 2020, each of those allowing a farmer to deviate from the province's mandated three-year crop rotation on a particular field.
That three-year crop rotation is written into law to prevent over-planting of row crops — particularly potatoes — which otherwise could deplete soil nutrients, requiring farmers to apply more fertilizer.
Within the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act itself, the law states its purpose is to "maintain and improve" the quality of soil, surface and groundwater, and to "preserve soil productivity."
But the law has always allowed exceptions, the number of which has never been made public.
P.E.I. may be unique in putting crop rotations into law — few if any other provinces have taken that step. But the Island also faces unique challenges with limits on how much land is available for farming and other applications, and with its dependence on groundwater as the only source of drinking water.
For years there have been calls to improve P.E.I.'s crop rotation legislation — most recently by members of the P.E.I. Certified Organic Growers Co-operative in a presentation before P.E.I.'s Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability on Jan. 21.
Time to modernize?
In an interview with CBC News the group's research co-ordinator Karen Murchison suggested it's time to modernize the law, first introduced in 2002.
"At that time, conversations around soil and the preservation of soil was really only about reducing run-off and keeping soil on the field," Murchison said.
"We've evolved from that conversation around soil that's… focused entirely or mostly around soil loss, and have moved and advanced our conversation to one where we talk more about soil health, productivity and soil organic matter levels.
"I think we should probably go back and revisit … how we consider and think about crop rotation, and the impact of a crop rotation on things like soil health and soil organic matter levels."
Under the law, a farmer is permitted to plant the same row crop in the same field more than once in three years with an approved management plan that outlines specific soil conservation and nutrient management practices, including "tillage practices, planting of cover crops," and "nitrogen and phosphorous management practices."
But the only requirement of the management plan written into regulations is that, at least on paper, it limit soil loss through erosion to three tons per acre, per year. The province uses a specific calculation to determine just how much soil erosion can be expected, given the measures in the management plan.
82 farmers filed plans
The Department of Agriculture and Land told CBC News the 934 plans active at the start of 2020 belonged to 82 individual farmers, each plan pertaining to an individual field or an area of a field.
The province said it doesn't track total acreage under management, but that each plan would pertain to between 30 to 40 acres — meaning those plans would have allowed about 33,000 acres to operate with something less than a three-year rotation.
Ryan Barrett, an agronomist with the P.E.I. Potato Board, says that despite calls for decades to improve compliance with the legislation, potato farmers are complying — including those granted exemptions through management plans.
There's a lot of tools in the toolbox, there's a lot of things that go into sustainable soil management … probably more than can be put into legislation. - Ryan Barrett
He said there are myriad measures farmers can take to protect soil health ("little hammers," he called them) and suggested strict enforcement of a three-year rotation through legislation is a "sledgehammer," and not the right tool for the job.
"There's a lot of tools in the toolbox, there's a lot of things that go into sustainable soil management … probably more than can be put into legislation," he said.
"It's very important to invest and promote that suite of tools," Barrett said. "A mandatory rotation that doesn't have good management practices as part of it may be worse than what the farm was already doing."
Barrett said while the management plans allow farmers to plant potatoes every second year, a common practice is what's known as a "two-in-five" plan: planting potatoes in the first and third years of a five-year rotation.
He said a decline in the livestock industry has made it less profitable for farmers to include forage crops, which are good at replenishing the soil, in their rotations.
Barrett said without the management plans allowing farmers to plant potatoes more frequently, "there would be a lot of farms with limited land base that would not be able to meet their contracts or production goals for potatoes."
Not enough land, company says
Appearing before a provincial standing committee in 2018, Robert Irving, president of Cavendish Farms, said potato farmers needed to be allowed to own more land in order to be profitable while employing a three-year rotation.
Under the Lands Protection Act, individuals are limited to owning 1,000 acres of land. For corporations, the limit is 3,000 acres. With allowances for leased and non-arable land, those limits increase to 1,900 acres for individuals and 5,700 acres for corporations.
"To be economically sustainable while respecting government goals of three-year crop rotations — which the governments have implanted and have asked our farmers to apply to — family farms growing potatoes need a minimum of 2,100 acres," Irving told the committee, suggesting a potato farm needs to harvest 700 acres per year to be economically viable.
When asked what percentage of the growers working for Cavendish Farms were operating with exceptions under the Crop Rotation Act, Irving said he didn't know the exact number "but it's quite high I would think."
Carver report urged improved practices
Among the calls over the years to improve crop rotation practices was a recommendation in Horace Carver's 2013 report on the Lands Protection Act.
In his report Carver quoted government's "State of the Environment" report from 2010, which said that "where potatoes were grown more frequently than once every three years in the crop rotation, soil organic matter levels dropped to below three per cent. When potatoes were grown once in every three years, and forages or cereals were incorporated into that rotation cycle, soil organic matter levels remained above three per cent."
There are ongoing concerns about the health, quality and fertility of P.E.I.'s soils.
Those concerns are voiced in a 20-year study begun in 1998, which found levels of organic matter declined over that time period, although levels stabilized in 2013 through to 2018, the year from which the most recent data is available.
Last year government began offering free soil health testing for farmers and watershed groups, as part of efforts to improve organic matter content.
Approvals tied to testing?
Green MLA Michele Beaton said that testing should be tied into the approval process for management plans to allow shorter crop rotations.
"If we linked the soil health tests to that three-year crop rotation … then you'd be able to get a better reading on how the crop rotation, the current act is working and whether there needs to be more specifics put in it."
CBC News asked to speak with someone from the Department of Agriculture and Land on this issue but no one was made available.
More from CBC P.E.I.