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In PEI, potatoes have deep family roots

Gary Linkletter, second from left, is one of the principals in Linkletter Farms. (Photo Credit: Prince Edward Island Federation of Agriculture)

Gary Linkletter, second from left, is one of the principals in Linkletter Farms. (Photo Credit: Prince Edward Island Federation of Agriculture)

Gary Linkletter, the general manager of Linkletter Farms, just outside of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, is a busy man.

“Can we talk later,” he says on a sunny summer day. “It’s supposed to rain for the next few days and I want to get as much planting done as possible.”

Later on, he has a few minutes to catch up while in the office, although he is occasionally interrupted by people asking him questions.

Running Linkletter Farms, which employs over 50 people, is a constant exercise in balance, straddling the conventions of small-scale family operations while working within a larger business model. Being a family farm, Linkletter says, affects how he approaches the business.

The Linkletter family has been farming in Prince Edward Island since the 1700s, but the scale at which they are farming today has changed greatly, and particularly in the past generation, since Gary’s father, Leigh, and uncle, Garth, were farming.

“When my father was growing up, it was a mixed farm,” says Linkletter. “They grew into a potato operation, starting with a packing plant. That plant has now expanded 10 times in size, and the acreage has gone up too.” Today, Linkletter Farms is a multi-generation family farm that grows approximately 1,500 acres of potatoes each year.

But gathering the acreage needed for potato farming isn’t easy in a place like PEI. The province limits land allocation to 3,000 acres per company and 1,000 acres per individual.

“In PEI, more and more, the viability of small livestock farms has diminished”

The farm is now owned and operated by four of Leigh and Garth’s offspring and their families. “We had eight people in our family, with an allocation for three people,” Linkletter says. “So we split the business up into four companies. It was important for us to find a way to get it to work. We farm as a group, and talk as a group.”

Farmers across PEI are experiencing similar growing pains. The number of farms in the province has been steadily declining in recent decades. According to Statistics Canada, there were 2,833 farms operating on the island in 1986. That number dropped by nearly half by 2011, to 1,495. Farms have been getting bigger, and the value of land and buildings has almost tripled.

With costs and valuations like these, family farmers like the Linkletters have to follow every cent as it enters and leaves the business. “We are much more dependent on cash flow than my father was,” says Linkletter. “When my father was farming, costs were lower, so they could lose a crop, or afford to have things not go to market for a good price.”

Today, it’s a different story. “When I first got into business, I used to think three years of crop failure would put us out of business,” he says. “Now it’s one year.” With odds like that, Linkletter says he can’t afford to make mistakes.

He points to how the closing of some farms has affected those that remain. For example, his farm used to grow grain as part of a crop rotation process to ensure good soil health. He would have a ready market for the grain in beef and pork producers, but those industries have now dwindled, with the total cattle count in PEI at 63,478 in 2011, down from more than 100,000 in 1986. Pig numbers have dropped to less than half their 1986 numbers.

Members of the present-day Linkletter family. (Photo Credit: Gary Linkletter)

Members of the present-day Linkletter family. (Photo Credit: Gary Linkletter)

“In PEI, more and more, the viability of small livestock farms has diminished,” Linkletter says. “That is a loss, there is no question. We love manure, and would get manure from neighbours. Now when we buy manure, we have to pay big bucks for it.” While he could just add chemical fertilizers, he says, “I can put nutrients in the ground with it, but not microbes.”

Given the financial constraints and physical challenges, it is not surprising that fewer members of the younger generation of Linkletters are interested in farming.

“I have three boys, and none of them want to,” Linkletter says. “One of them told me, ‘There is no future in farming for me.’”

Linkletter’s tone changes as he talks about family legacies. He is proud to point out that one of his nephews, as well as the children of some of his cousins, are interested in being a part of it all.

“It’s great being able to work with family for common goals,” he says. “There are good things to be said for it.”

wiles_clrThis is the seventh in a year-long series of articles about family farming in Atlantic Canada made possible by Wile’s Lake Farm Market. The United Nations has designated 2014 the International Year of Family Farming.

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