The title "Back to the Land Reserve" in a field of wheat

Can B.C.’s new government make the dream of food security a reality?

By Sarah Hughes

Farmers in British Columbia—or anyone who wants to buy farmland—still follow land-use policies written four decades ago. But times are a changin’. The newly appointed minister of agriculture, Lana Popham, plans to bring the Agricultural Land Reserve into the 21st century.

In January 2018, Minister Popham appointed a committee of nine experts in farming, agricultural policy and food security to guide the revitalization of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and update the Agricultural Land Commission Act.

And just in time. According to a 2016 report by the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, the population of southwest B.C. is projected to increase by 60 percent from 2011 levels by the year 2050. That’s a lot of new mouths to feed.

The committee has been asked to provide the Ministry of Agriculture with advice on renewing the ALR by fall 2018 or the spring of 2019. But Popham isn’t waiting; she already has big changes in mind for the ALR. These include reviewing the boundary zones of viable farmland, addressing current threats to farmers and farmland, changing ownership policy and taxation limits for farmland, and addressing climate change—to name a few issues.

The majority of the committee lives on the Lower Mainland, with two members each from Vancouver Island and the Peace River region. Four are practicing farmers and ranchers, while the rest have academic, political, or commercial backgrounds in agriculture.

In 1973, the provincial government passed the Agricultural Land Commission Act and appointed the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) to oversee “the dwindling supply of agricultural land” and put into effect a boundary reserve that protected five percent of land—4.6 million hectares—identified as most valuable for food production. Today, the ALR boundaries remain mostly unchanged.

A map of BC noting ALR land in blue.

Ian Paton, Liberal MLA for Delta South and official opposition critic for agriculture, thinks the NDP review of the ALR and commission is redundant. Paton also worries that the review committee appointed by Popham isn’t diverse enough.

“It’s a little bit disappointing to me when I look at the committee,” says Paton. “There’s no one from the berry industry, no one from the wine and grape-growing industry, nobody from the beef and cattle-ranching industry. I would’ve liked to see is a lot more representation from different aspects of farming and different areas of farming.”

Paton is a third-generation dairy farmer from Delta. His family has followed the development of the ALR and ALC since the ‘70s. He’s worried about the lack of options for farmers who want to add value to their farms in winter months when crops don’t grow.

“If you’re farming in Arizona, Mexico or California, you’re probably farming 12 months of the year,” says Paton. “But up here in B.C., with our climate above the 49th parallel, most of the farmers are staring at the snow and the rain for seven months of the year, so why shouldn’t they have some value added stuff they can do on their farm to make ends meet?”

Currently, under the ALC Act, farmers can manage different farm-related activities on their land (such as a home-based business or farm store), but it gets tricky depending on the farm’s local government. Some municipalities allow types of activities on farmland that others don’t, which makes it challenging for farms with less-valued crops to survive lower-yield years or adapt to the effects of climate change, such as flooding or drought.

According to Minister Popham, the ALR revitalization hopes to persuade young people to get farming and new farmers to keep farming. The Growing Progress, a February report by the Real Estate Foundation of BC, revealed that only seven percent of B.C.’s farmers are under 35 years old and the number of farm operators has decreased by nearly one-fifth since 1996. The aging face of farming is a problem if the province wants to increase food production in the coming decades.

The report also notes a 2016 poll, in which 92 percent of British Columbians supported locally produced food and 95 percent supported preserving farmland through the ALR. So who’s going to produce all of this local food to meet demand? Hopefully, the review will offer Popham some strategies to wrangle a new generation of farmers back to the land.

“Agriculture, to survive in B.C., is all about young people coming along,” says Paton. “I’m seeing way more young people getting interested because of some value-added stuff you’re able to do on the farms. Young people are excited about on-farm sales of their product.”

In 2014, the B.C. Liberals split the ALR into two zones—a contentious issue for farmers and politicians alike. Zone one includes Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, and the South Coast regions, while zone two contains the Interior, the Kootenays, and the North. In zone two, the priority is no longer just preserving farmland, which gives easier access to oil and gas and other commercial developments, a dreaded outcome for some farmers and farming activists. Rising land costs and farmland speculation has also created rifts in the agricultural community. Some groups argue for higher taxation and restrictions on house sizes, while others, like the Richmond Farmland Owners Association, want municipalities to stop imposing bylaws on residential development on farmland.

Nathalie Chambers, owner of Madrona Farms in Saanich, thinks it’s past time to spruce up the ALR. Chambers would like to see a shift in farmland ownership policy and the ALR revert to its original purpose as a farmlands trust.

Nathalie Chambers behind the farm stand at Madrona
Nathalie Chambers at the Madrona farm stand

“Removing the farm out of private ownership and putting it in trust is ultimately what we need to do,” she says of Madrona. “Because governments come and governments go, but the land has got to be there… Land use changes over time. The soil is the most important thing, so it’s not about this current generation and their important projects on [the] land—it’s about keeping the soil forever.”

Madrona Farms survived a tense moment when Chambers wasn’t sure if she could afford to stay there. In 2013, she and her husband had to raise $2.7 million to buy the farm. Chambers would have preferred the process to be more like a covenant, with multiple groups like the municipal government, and even First Nations communities jointly protecting the property in perpetuity.

Chambers imagines raising money to buy the entire ALR as a land trust. “It’s such a common cause. It’s something you do for everybody and the future diversity of life.”

Reg Ens, executive director of the British Columbia Agricultural Council (BCAC), thinks that there are two fundamental parts to the renewal process of the ALR. First, the two zones that were split in 2014 should be consolidated. Second, the BCAC wants to see a comprehensive review of the issues and solutions available to current and future farmers in the province.

“Revitalizing farmland is beyond what the current ALC land use parameters are,” says Ens. “This would be things like looking at tax policy, municipal bylaws, restrictions, guidelines, at how government invests dollars in sustainable farm practices, and in revitalizing incentive-type programs.”

Ens wants the government to dive deep into changing the ALC by including all stakeholders, from farmers to the B.C. Assessment Authority, from local government to the Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Finance. “We have to think outside the box a little bit. I think it’s a culture change for us as an industry. We’re all for access to land, but access to land doesn’t always mean ownership of land.”

Something that could add even more pressure to farmland reform is B.C.’s budding (and soon-to-be legal) recreational marijuana industry. Chambers and Paton are both vocally opposed to the use of farmland for pot production. Paton says there are already plans in the Lower Mainland to convert 80 acres of greenhouse space from food production to marijuana.

“The NDP government should step in and do something about this,” argues Paton. “Are you kidding me? Taking away production of tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers in our greenhouses for marijuana? That’s just ridiculous.”

Chambers opposes any industrial use of farmland, including marijuana facilities. She recommends heavily taxing grow-ops to fund a farmland trust. “Locally, we need to create a green zone and industrial marijuana growing zone where rent is appropriate to what they’re going to be making from their crops.”

According to press releases from Popham, growing marijuana on farmland will definitely be reviewed by the committee.

Minister Popham plans to have a review on her desk by the end of the summer with suggestions for legislative and regulatory changes for the ALR. Before that, the committee will share a consultation paper to gather feedback. The committee will host meetings in farming communities in Abbotsford, Cranbrook, Fort St. John, Kelowna, Nanaimo, and Prince George and open an online consultation process for the public.

Farmers and anyone else who cares about long-term food security in our province should share their hopes and vision with the new government as it reviews the role and policies of the Agricultural Land Reserve. Forty years is a long time to wait for change. And a sustainable future for farming in B.C. can’t wait for forty more.

The online survey is open until April 30, 2018, at engage.gov.bc.ca/agriculturallandreserve/.

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