The suddenly famous mushroom farmer in the middle of the Poilievre-vs.-Trudeau carbon-tax fracas

Mike Medeiros says he needs time to adapt to a carbon tax that cost his business $16,000 last month

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OTTAWA — Mushroom farmer Mike Medeiros is suddenly famous. His name kept coming up in question period exchanges between Pierre Poilievre and Justin Trudeau this fall. But the man himself says he doesn’t need a spotlight, he needs a solution to a mounting problem for his business.

“It’s fine that they mentioned my name or my farm, but it’s all farmers. It’s chicken. It’s pork. It’s all farmers that are feeling this,” he said in a recent interview.

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Medeiros and his family business, Carleton Mushroom Farms in Osgoode, Ont., have become one of the Conservative leader’s favourite examples in debates with the prime minister about the Liberal government’s carbon tax.

“Carleton Mushroom Farms’ owner will pay $100,000 this year, rising to $400,000 over the carbon tax increase the prime minister proposes, and he is sending them tiny rebate cheques to their household mailbox,” Poilievre said in a raucous exchange with the prime minister in Parliament’s final sitting before the Christmas break. “Is the prime minister committing today that he is going to send a $400,000 rebate to this family farm?”

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Trudeau defended his government’s carbon tax, maintaining that the Conservatives have no plan to deal with climate change while the Liberals’ approach is working. Later, in what became a nearly 20-minute exchange about the mushroom farm, Trudeau said the carbon tax is about encouraging adaptation.

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“Multi-million-dollar farms that are successful will continue to be encouraged to look for ways to use their machinery and to heat their produce in ways that are lower-emitting,” Trudeau said. “That is what fighting climate change is all about. It is encouraging successful farms, like the Medeiros family farm, to continue to be successful but to do so in ways that reduce their emissions.”

Poilievre first brought up Carleton Mushroom Farms in the Commons last February, then again in November and once again on Dec. 13, prompting the exchange with Trudeau. His MPs, too, have mentioned the farmer’s plight several times.

The $100,000 number Poilievre has quoted is staggering — and accurate. Medeiros’s bill for November alone includes $16,050.13 for the federal carbon tax, as part of a monthly natural gas bill that hit $72,050.36 in November. About 10 per cent of his operating expenses are related to heating.

Currently the carbon tax is $65 per tonne, or 12.39 cents per cubic metre of natural gas. Under the Liberals’ current plan, it will rise to $170 per tonne or 32.40 cents per cubic metre in 2030.

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Since mushrooms are grown indoors the huge carbon tax bills aren’t helping. Photo by JULIE OLIVER /Postmedia

Medeiros used an enormous amount of natural gas, almost 130,000 cubic metres in November. By contrast, the average Canadian home uses 3,000 cubic metres in an entire year. As the carbon tax rises, Medeiros’s carbon tax bill will only climb. If he uses the same amount of gas in November 2030 as he did this year, his carbon tax bill will hit $42,000.

Before they are bathed in butter and garlic and served alongside a nice steak, mixed into a stir-fry or made into a hearty soup, mushrooms grow in special rooms where heat, temperature and humidity are carefully controlled.

Medeiros said the 50 growing rooms on his farm are well insulated, but he has to constantly circulate the air, which is difficult during the cold winter months at his farm in Osgoode, near Ottawa.

“We use a lot of fresh air for the growing rooms and so when the fresh air is -15 C and -10 C. We need to heat that air up.”

Growing rooms are also sterilized with steam between crops. Medeiros said right now there is no way around the costs he is facing.

“I understand being green and I believe in it, but the cost, this whole extra cost I can’t recapture this. I can’t just pass it on to the clients every year,” he said.

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It’s all farmers that are feeling this

The farm is not a small operation, each growing room is 4,300 square feet and the farm produces 200,000 pounds of mushrooms each week, including oyster, shiitake and portabella varieties. Several years ago, Medeiros spent $1.8 million to bring a natural gas line to his property. Prior to that, he used about two million litres of propane on his farm every year.

“We ended up paying for our own pipeline to come to our farm to help save, so now we’re only using roughly 1.3 million cubic metres of natural gas. So there’s a huge loss of a carbon footprint because of this,” he said.

Poilievre is Medeiros’s MP and the farmer has been a donor to the Conservative leader’s campaigns in the past. He said he is looking at new technology, including hydrogen boilers, but until he can find something that will work, he needs a break on the tax. He points to the exemption greenhouse growers get — an 80-per-cent rebate on the carbon tax.

“I’m looking at alternatives, but it takes time and so the exemption that the greenhouse growers got … we just need something like that to help us out, to figure something out here,” he said.

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Farmers across the country have an exemption to the carbon tax for gasoline and diesel used on the farm. A Conservative private member’s bill, C-234, would have extended that break to cover natural gas and propane, covering mushroom farms as well as livestock operations who need to keep animals warm at night and grain farmers who need to dry their grain.

C-234 passed through the House, but was amended in the Senate earlier this month, delaying its passage by sending it back to the Commons, where it might be permanently stalled.

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By 2030 Medeiros calculates he will pay upwards of half a million dollars yearly on his energy bill.‘That will force us to put our prices up and we don’t want to do that,’ explains Medeiros. Photo by JULIE OLIVER /Postmedia

Mushrooms Canada CEO Ryan Koeslag said, in addition to advocating for C-234, his group has pushed for mushroom farmers to get the same treatment as greenhouses, as both industries grow indoors and ship their produce to the United States.

“We have begged and pleaded with both Agriculture Canada and Revenue Canada to get included, but it’s never happened and so we continue to be kind of that problem child,” he said.

He said the mushroom industry employs about 6,500 people in Canada and grows 175,000 tonnes of mushrooms every year.  Medeiros’s farm is about average for the industry and many farmers made the same move he did, switching to natural gas.

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“I think most people think natural gas was the solution to go to, like it was the cleaner fuel to use,” Koeslag said.

He said there is frustration among farmers that the goal line is constantly moving, no matter how much more sustainable their practices get.

“We seem to be never credited for the work they’ve done in the past. It’s a matter of what they need to keep doing more,” he said. “This is an industry that grows food on composted waste material. Let’s not forget that that’s the process of growing mushrooms. We’re already using a recycled technology to grow food.”

Medeiros said when the carbon tax increases next April it will bump up his annual bill even higher than the $150,000 he faces now.

“When it goes up again we will probably be just under $200,000. At the end of the day, I’d like to put that money on my mortgage and pay some bills.”

He said he is running out of ways to work around the problem.

“I’m working right now with no margins. We have been absorbing everything and we can’t be there anymore,” he said. “We can’t keep doing this.”

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