by Emily Leeson
There have been several accounts by P.E.I. farmers of disturbance and damage to their land in recent months. The issue has been off-road traffic on farmland. The consequences have run from nuisance to costly damage to crops and equipment. With social media now at the fingertips of Island farmers, the situation has gone viral. Twitter, Facebook, and subsequently Maritime news outlets have been abuzz with the problem on P.E.I. – thoughtless trespassing.
Organizations such as the P.E.I. ATV Federation are quickly growing and working with property owners and other stakeholders to secure trails for recreational use and to ensure that property owners are respected and appreciated. With more than 500,000 acres of farmland on the Island, it seems some still need reminding that P.E.I. is an agricultural province and that land matters.
Early in May, Randall Affleck, a dairy farmer in Bedeque, took to Twitter to share his opinion of the fresh crop of ruts he found running through his hayfield one morning. “For an agricultural province, the level of inconsideration of farm property is astounding,” his post read, alongside an image of the tracks.
Despite being relatively good-natured about the regular trespassing he experiences when cottagers and beach-goers use his fields as an unofficial shortcut, Affleck doesn’t discount the damage it does to his fields. The four- and five-inch ruts hinder his haying, and the trespassers often leave behind litter.
“It’s an unnecessary nuisance,” he said. “They have no business being there and I don’t know why they continue to do it. But they do and if I lived to be 100, I imagine I’d be tweeting about it.”
While he was initially against the optics of putting up “no trespassing” signs, Affleck eventually gave in and posted them throughout his 400 acres of fields. The problem didn’t subside. His land is near a popular beach. And as cottagers have added gates to their lanes, aiming to lower the risk of break-ins, the daily visitors are forced to find other routes to the water – usually through Affleck’s fields. Especially in the spring, those somewhat unwitting trespassers often end up stuck in hayfields not meant for their vehicles.
“They get themselves in the worst binds,” said Affleck, but he chalks it up to springtime in the Maritimes and said he always helps them out, although few return the favour. “I never have people come back with shovels offering to help fill the holes in. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
Affleck said he appreciates that he rarely sees the same person casually trespassing twice and that he’s happy to have never been the victim of vandalism. However, he’d like to see a greater respect for agricultural land.
“The way I look at it, I wouldn’t even consider taking my truck and going into town and driving around someone’s lawn because it was a shortcut,” he said. “The thought wouldn’t even enter my mind. If they’d ask, even aside from the courtesy of it, I could coach them on where they could go. I could get them a certain distance.”
For the MacKenzies in Stratford, trespassing has become much more than just a nuisance. Tania and Greg MacKenzie, who own MacKenzie Produce, had an incident on their farm make the news in mid-May when they were thrust into a confrontation with trespassers and left with $2,000-worth of damage to their crops and equipment.
According to Tania MacKenzie, part of the problem may be the farm’s proximity to Stratford’s expanding suburbs and a popular pit used by off-road enthusiasts. “We’re just five kilometres east of Charlottetown,” she said. “It’s a fast-growing community with a lot of houses being built and a lot of kids from the subdivisions coming from the west heading east and cutting through our fields to get to the pit. We’re just as you begin to get in the country.”
Years ago, the MacKenzies had a comfortable relationship with local dirt bike and ATV riders – even building a small dirt bike track on a far corner of their field and allowing riders to make their way along the edge of their fields to the popular pit site.
However, the situation changed in recent years. Riders started cutting through the fields and coming dangerously close to the farm’s four greenhouses. Attempts to communicate the importance of staying off the farmland were futile. “They just ignored us,” said MacKenzie. Eventually, the MacKenzies were forced to put up “no trespassing” signs to try to halt the dangerous traffic.
One Saturday in early May that signage was tested and ignored by a group of dirt bikers and ATVers who cut through their property just as MacKenzie was out watering in the greenhouses. “I put my hand up to say ‘stop’ and they just waved at me and sped up and continued on,” she said.
“The next day, Sunday, at sometime during the morning or early afternoon, my husband noticed that they had gone through again,” she said. “He only noticed because they had driven right over our row cover, covering our beans.”
The new row covering was damaged, as were the newly planted beans. The MacKenzies eventually discovered that their “no trespassing” signs had also been torn down and blueberry plants driven over. MacKenzie estimates that the entire incident resulted in about $2,000-worth of damage.
Later that evening, around 7 p.m., when MacKenzie was out walking their dogs, she heard the familiar sound of an ATV. She’d been expecting the riders to return, but this time the ATV stopped midway through her field, broken down.
“I approached him and I said, ‘Why are you on my property?’ MacKenzie recalled. “I said, ‘Are you 18?’ And he said, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘I suggest you call your father because my husband is on the phone right now with the RCMP.’”
Shortly after that, the boy’s father arrived, along with a dirt bike rider. The MacKenzies didn’t get the response they were expecting. They said no apology was given and instead they were deemed “unneighbourly” by the trespassers for no longer allowing the off-road vehicles on their property.
“RCMP came and the three of them were charged – the one on the four-wheeler, the one on the dirt bike, and the father got charged for trespassing as well,” said MacKenzie.
She calls the whole incident “awful” and is hoping that’s the end of it. “When they were here, one of the RCMP said, ‘I don’t even know how anyone can live in Stratford, in a subdivision, and own a dirt bike because it’s closing in so quickly. There’s nowhere to go really, unless you put your bike in a trailer and trail it to the pit.’”
With development moving closer to farmland and farmers unable to put up with the damage, the relationships have been strained to the limit.
“One by one, us farmers and other property owners have been putting up signage to say ‘no more,’” said MacKenzie.
P.E.I. ATV FEDERATION
That experience is exactly the sort of thing that Peter Mellish, president of the P.E.I. ATV Federation is aiming to avoid. For the last two years the organization has developed more than 250 kilometres of trails and they plan to add another 100 kilometres this year. In their first year, they sold around 300 licences to ATV drivers, and this year Mellish expects them to sell 1,000.
“All of our trails on P.E.I. are on private land,” said Mellish. “Most of it is owned by farmers, so we go to every one of them and ask for permission to use it. We come up with a plan for that property and ensure that people know where to go and where not to go.”
The federation’s first efforts at thwarting the sort of behaviours that can harm property involved education. “We published a handbook a couple of years ago with the stakeholders – enforcement, the Mounties, the federation of agriculture, and the snowmobile federation,” said Mellish. “Every time somebody buys a trail pass in P.E.I., they get that handbook – where to ride and where not to ride.”
Where they can, the group has also stepped in to assist property owners in dealing with trouble from recreational riders on their land. “We use social media and trail cameras a lot if we have a problem spot,” said Mellish. “The people who are doing the damage on these properties are not federation riders and they’re not riding on our sanctioned trials.”
Eager to be part of the solution to farmland trespassing beyond just partnering with individual landowners, the P.E.I. ATV Federation recently created a working group along with government, the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, and watershed, snowmobile, trail, and cycling organizations. “We created this group to help us grow our organization properly,” said Mellish.
Back in Bedeque, Affleck has started to get a positive response from some local cottagers who’ve noticed his Twitter post. His efforts at public outreach have already had quite a bit more reach than he was expecting. He’s not looking to ruffle any feathers though. He seems well aware that some people just aren’t up to speed about life on the farm. He’s just looking for a little more mutual respect.