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O’Leary Mayor Eric Gavin is concerned for the workers who will lose their jobs when Cavendish Farms ceases potato packing operations at its O’Leary Corner plant. The mayor feels the entire West Prince economy will suffer.
O’Leary Mayor Eric Gavin is concerned for the workers who will lose their jobs when Cavendish Farms ceases potato packing operations at its O’Leary Corner plant. The mayor feels the entire West Prince economy will suffer. - Eric McCarthy

O’LEARY, P.E.I. - Mayor Eric Gavin says he’s concerned for the employees who will lose their jobs when packing operations cease at Cavendish Farm’s O’Leary plant at the end of the year.

The company announced the planned closure on Monday, indicating it intends to focus on the frozen potato processing business which, on P.E.I., is based out of its New Annan plants. The O’Leary area plant will continue to be utilized for storage.

For Gavin, the bottom line is simple: “We’re losing 40 jobs from this area.”

Besides the impact on those employees, Gavin said there is bound to be a negative impact on the O’Leary and West Prince economy, suggesting some families might choose to move away.

“If you lose five families or six families out of here, that doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s five families that are not buying groceries at the Co-op or not buying gas. It starts to get serious after a while.”

Agriculture Minister Robert Henderson, who is also the local MLA for the area, said Cavendish Farms informed him of its decision Monday morning.

Henderson said the provincial government will do all it can to support the impacted workers, and he said he encouraged Cavendish Farms to make sure the workers are aware of provincial supports.

“We will certainly do what we can,” the minister said.

Noting Cavendish Farms and farm operations throughout West Prince are routinely seeking workers, he expressed confidence the displaced workers will be able to secure other employment.

“It is a regrettable decision for West Prince, but they are making a business decision and I sort of get their sense in the comments they made to me: ‘We are bringing potatoes in to P.E.I. to process them for the french fry plant and we are sending potatoes out.’ And that didn’t make any sense to them. I get their point on that, but I would hope that table market can be tapped into by other table operations on the Island.”

P.E.I. Potato Board general manager, Greg Donald was surprised with the company’s decision.

“I was disappointed, and I feel bad for the folks who work at the plant and the rural area of P.E.I. That’s going to be tough.”

He said there has been strong demand and improved prices in the fresh potato market in recent years.

“It’s disappointing it’s closing, but, I think, at the end of the day, it’s a reflection there is more demand right now than we can supply,” said Donald.

The company presented an argument for supplemental irrigation, or deep-water wells, suggesting the Island cannot afford to have its largest export product entirely dependent on rainfall.

"Farmers are always trying to get more productivity and that hasn’t changed, and now that demand is exceeding supply, there’s more of a need to improve on production,” Donald said. He acknowledged supplemental irrigation is one of the tools that can help achieve that and said the board’s position is that, where it can be done responsibly and without negative environmental impacts, then supplemental irrigation should be looked at and interested growers be granted access.

Gavin, however, is concerned.

“You start screwing around with the water, pretty soon you’ve got yourself into a situation that you might not be able to reverse,” he warned.

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