As you drive Blenkinsop Road, past fields strewn with contorted Garry oak trees, along the southwesterly side of Pkols—also known as Mount Doug—you quickly forget you are just 15 minutes from downtown Victoria. The fertile land would have been subdivided and developed into another suburban neighbourhood long ago if it were not for the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). Still, this idyllic rural setting is under threat. “The Blenkinsop Valley,” says Nathalie Chambers of Madrona Farm, “is taking its last breaths.”
Where municipalities lack the policies and political will to ensure a low-impact approach to development, the provincial ALR acts as an important safeguard, protecting a significant amount of farmland from urbanization. For all the benefits however, the ALR does not enable farmers to access the land or preserve its soil quality. Chambers recently published a book, Saving Farmland, and was instrumental in raising the alarm, and the funds, to preserve Madrona, which she runs with her husband, David. The Blenkinsop Valley’s ALR status does not mean the land will be farmed in ecologically sensitive ways, and Chambers has noticed losses in biodiversity and degraded soil.
Chambers is among the farmers, politicians, and everyday land protectors concerned about recent changes to the ALR. These have split the province into two zones with different decision-making criteria and established six regional panels instead of the single provincial commission. The new set of criteria in zone two opens the door for non-agricultural related activities, including oil and gas development. Critics want policies and partnerships that will help farmers access the land and support both ecologically and economically sound farming practices, strengthening the ALR and thereby increasing food security in B.C.
Making this goal more difficult, however, is the skyrocketing price of real estate on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland. According to Chambers, “the largest threat to farmland and the largest obstacle to food security is the price of farmland, second only to industrialization.”
A SIMPLE GOAL
Such threats are not new. In 1973, after the B.C. government recognized that almost 6,000 hectares of farmland was being lost annually to development, it instituted the Agricultural Land Commission Act. The government then appointed an independent tribunal of commissioners who set out the land use zone known as the ALR. By the mid-70s, close to five per cent of the province’s land base had been designated as ALR. Land was designated primarily based on the suitability of the soil and climate for agriculture, as well as the land’s current non-urban and non-industrial state. The Agricultural Land Commission’s (ALC) job was to decide how the land could be used and what parcels of land should be included or excluded, free from political interference. The ALC’s goal was simple: protect farmland and encourage successful farms.
Enacted in 2014, the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, or Bill 24, divides the province into two zones, overseen by six newly legislated, independent tribunals. In zone one, which includes Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, the Fraser Valley, and the Okanagan—areas where farmland is most limited and urban growth is a threat—protecting land and encouraging agriculture remain the ALR’s sole objectives. In zone two, which makes up the other 90 per cent of the province, the commission must now consider factors that are not strictly agricultural, such as how a community or region will benefit economically, when making decisions—a change that has raised concerns about this government’s commitment to building on the legacy of the ALR.
“In zone two, the preservation of agricultural land is no longer the only, or the most prevalent, factor,” says Deborah Curran, Hakai Professor in Environmental Law and Sustainability and acting Executive Director of the Environmental Law Centre (ELC) at the University of Victoria. A municipal and environmental lawyer, Curran focuses her research on smart growth approaches to regional sustainability, which includes preserving working landscapes and food systems. She cautions that the changes could allow for more non-farm uses of ALR land.
Non-farm uses include breweries, meaderies, and distilleries, agri-tourism, aggregate extraction, water and gas pipelines, and the recently added special events such as weddings and festivals. While these activities can provide revenue for farmers, they can also heighten expectations for non-agricultural land use in the ALR—an issue that the ALC considers when assessing proposals. Curran says that getting rid of the new two-zone system would strengthen the ALR. Agricultural land would again be valued strictly for its agricultural capacity, and the ALC would return to its primary function of protecting farmland.
Current ALC chair Frank Leonard says while the ALC now considers other factors, agricultural land still comes first. “If it’s good farmland, it’s good farmland, and the decisions reflect that,” says Leonard.
However, Curran is not the only one worried about the long-term impacts of valuing farmland for activities other then farming. Richard Bullock, former chair of the ALC, says he was fired and replaced by Leonard in 2015 due to his high level of involvement in decision-making and his firm stance against what he sees as increased political interference resulting from Bill 24.
“I believe very strongly that what they have done has nothing to do with saving farmlands,” says Bullock, “but making it easier for folks who own farmlands, not necessarily farmers, to do a whole host of things.” In a real estate market where he says buyers already use B.C. farmland for speculation, he believes the changes may signal a weakening ALR that will eventually leave farmland unprotected.
“[I am] looking for somebody in government to stand up and say, ‘The ALC is here to stay and keep your hands off it. You buy farmland, you sell farmland,’” says Bullock.
Where farmland is sparse and urban growth rampant, ALR decisions to exclude sections become controversial. According to Curran, the contexts of urban expansion and a hot international real-estate market, which is driving sales in B.C., are putting the economic value of land above its value for food production. In this regard, “the ALR, at the minimum, protects the land from gentrification,” she says.
“What is the ALC is in business for, if it won’t protect fertile farmland from a strip mall development?”
In Sidney, B.C., some residents argue that the ALR is not providing even minimal protection. Local citizen and agriculture advocate Springfield Harrison filed a request for reconsideration on the January 2016 ALC decision to exclude approximately 10 acres of ALR land belonging to the airport authority. Numerous other residents and community organizations supported Harrison, including the B.C. chapter of the Sierra Club, The soil on the disputed land has a class-two designation—some of the best land for growing food in B.C.
In the original decision, the ALC claimed the land was unsuitable for most farming due to its proximity to airfield and industrial activity. Harrison’s application argued that farmland is commonly located close to industry, while the land in question had been used for growing and harvesting hay until 2015, proving its viability as farmland. In August 2016, the ALC turned down his request for reconsideration, stating that the submission didn’t include any new evidence.
Meanwhile, the development firm Omicron has been working on a plan to turn a section of the excluded land into a 9,100-square-metre commercial site called the Sidney Gateway. The firm claims the Town of Sidney will benefit from over $700,000 in new property taxes. North Saanich residents behind the “Gateway? No Way!” group claim that Gateway will hurt local agriculture and be a disaster for Sidney retailers—leading to a predicted 25 per cent drop in revenue. They want to know what the ALC is in business for, if it won’t protect fertile farmland from a strip mall development.
The ALC acknowledged public concerns about the proposed retail site in the decision, but concluded that matters regarding how the land is developed fall outside their scope of influence. Sidney council approved the re-zoning in a 5-2 vote on Sept. 12, 2016. Omicron plans to start construction this spring, pending a development permit for the Victoria Airport Authority.
A SMART WAY TO GROW
If the fate of farmland outside, or excluded from, the ALR is largely in the hands of municipalities and regional districts, then food security requires both a strong ALR and active community planning. Deborah Curran argues that the ALR remains “exceedingly valuable” as the foundation of a secure food system. “It prevents the wholesale or continual conversion of agricultural land to urban uses,” she says. “It also puts the brakes on local governments who would like to just develop over their landscape.”
She calls protecting farmland “the flip side of good urban growth” and argues that municipalities are better served by taking a low-impact or “smart growth” approach to development. This strategy means they “densify” the use of existing infrastructure, such as sewers and waterlines, before going to undeveloped sites.
A smart growth approach in the City of Langford could have multiple benefits. The municipality, known for the controversial Bear Mountain development and its gung-ho approach to growth, recently eyed ALR land to continue its expansion. In October 2015, Langford applied for a bulk exclusion of 43 parcels totalling 40 hectares (about 99 acres), offering to exchange the land for cash contributions to an agricultural fund.
The decision took eight months, far exceeding the ALC’s new policy of 90 days, after which they return the application fee. In the end, the ALC turned them down. The commission approved only 10.6 hectares of small parcels that were already being used for residential purposes or exempt from the ALR for other reasons.
“Our panel spent a lot of time on that,” says Frank Leonard of the decision-making process. “I think we spent more time on it than the City of Langford.”
Langford may have been better off maximizing the value of existing infrastructure, as Curran’s research suggests, before attempting to move to ALR land and put pressure on the ALC.
“This isn’t even a ‘Save agriculture’ or ‘Save the environment’ argument,” says Curran. “It’s a common sense argument.” But until local government’s heed her advice, the ALR remains the best tool we have.
INCENTIVES TO FARM
The ALR is also meant as a way to encourage farming. NDP MLA Lana Popham, the opposition spokesperson for agriculture and food, takes issue with the changes to the legislation, calling the two-zone system “a big problem.” She says allowing landowners in part of the province to do business like servicing trucks for the oil and gas industry has nothing to do with agriculture.
Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick defends the changes. “The two zones were part of the bill that government introduced to continue to support the Agricultural Land Commission,” he says, claiming that the changes emphasize the ALC’s independence and provide farmers with the opportunity to make additional income off their land.
While Popham agrees that B.C. farmers need ways to become more financially stable, she says the ALR does not have the capacity it should because the policies to support farming aren’t in place. “Instead of looking at it as how can we help these farmers make money doing something other than farming, let’s help them make more money farming,” she says.
Popham recommends the government create a “procurement policy,” which would use health-care funding to purchase local food. “If we would put a policy in place that said up to 30 per cent, to start, [of hospital meals] has to be grown and processed in B.C.,” says Popham, “that 51 million dollars would stabilize the domestic economy for agriculture.” She hopes this policy would also encourage the processing companies that Canada has lost to the United States—such as those that turn apples into apple sauce—to return to the province, thanks to a guaranteed market for B.C.-made products.
British Columbia needs more solutions that increase economic viability for farmers while strengthening local food security. Today, thriving farms like Madrona are an exception, not the rule. “This valley used to be the most productive agricultural land on southern Vancouver Island,” says Chambers. “It’s a biological diversity hot spot within the rain shadow of the Olympic and Coast Mountain ranges and we used to bring food to the United States. Now we have three days of food on the Island.”
Oft-cited estimates, mostly from 2011, place the amount of Vancouver Island’s food produced locally at around 5 per cent. Meanwhile, around 70 per cent of all vegetables and 45 per cent of fruits consumed by British Columbians come from the U.S., with much of that from drought-stricken California. Although the land base protected by the ALR has remained virtually the same for four decades, the ALR on its own has not increased food production.
IMPROVING THE SYSTEM
According to Deborah Curran, approximately 50 per cent of protected farmland in the most expensive parts of the province (zone one) is not being farmed. This is due to what she calls “a failure in the land market,” resulting from an inability to provide farmland at fair prices. An April 2016 Vancity report on the threat to regional food security of rising land prices noted the viability of a farm business becomes questionable when land prices reach $80,000 per acre. The current land prices around Metro Vancouver are between $150,000 and $300,000 per acre on parcels less than five acres. “So, the question becomes ‘How do you create the conditions under which that land would be farmed?’” says Curran.
To encourage owners to lease land to farmers at affordable prices, Curran recommends adding nuances to the land taxation system. To obtain farm tax status in B.C., farm-gate sales on new and developing farms must be at least $2,500 on land between two and 10 acres and $10,000 on land under two acres—the larger amount of money on the lesser piece of land is to deter people who don’t actually farm their small plot from applying. According to Curran, the actual savings on land taxes are often not big enough to encourage more people to put their land into this level of production. “If there was more of an incentive,” she says, “there would be more leasing to farmers.”
Beyond tax breaks, Curran argues the price of farmland can be lowered by removing it from the real-estate market altogether using farmland trusts modelled on conservation trusts. As non-profit organizations, these trusts obtain the title to farmland through purchase or donation, protect the land in perpetuity, and then lease it to farmers. The farmland trust model inspired the Chambers to spearhead the movement to save Madrona Farm.
“The model here at Madrona Farm is borrowed from the National Trust in England,” says Chambers, “where they have protected—are you ready for this?—233,000 hectares of farmland.” That’s about 233,000 rugby fields. Through a multi-year fundraising campaign, and the support of 3,500 community member donors, the Chambers raised $2.7 million to buy Madrona and donate it back to The Land Conservancy of B.C. (TLC). Of the amount raised, $250,000 was an extra endowment for the TLC to care for Madrona Farm in perpetuity. The TLC holds the power to dictate what practices can happen on the land and to oversee its protection.
The Chambers pay market value on a long-term lease, which gives them the right to farm the land for at least 24 years. That timeline encourages them to invest in and reap the rewards of farming. Unfortunately, the TLC went into creditor protection—one step away from bankruptcy—in the fall of 2013, as a result of mounting debt, and was forced to transfer and sell off the majority of its properties. Though its status as titleholder of Madrona Farm remains uncertain, Chambers says the lease partially protects them because it is a legally binding agreement that would prevent the TLC from selling the farm.
Fortunately, a long-term solution to farmland protection is being developed locally by Vancouver Island’s Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR) and Vancouver’s Farm Folk City Folk (FFCF). “We are in the process of developing a new Foodlands Trust,” says FFCF farm program manager Heather Pritchard. FFCF has partnered with the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at UBC Farm and currently has two years of funding from the Real-Estate Foundation of B.C. and Vancity to establish the trust.
The Foodlands Trust will share an objective with many farmland trusts around the world. “[Its] primary purpose would be to acquire land, put it in trust, and then provide long-term leases to community groups who want to manage it,” explains Pritchard, a food activist, farmer, and co-founder of the Glorious Organics Co-op in the Fraser Valley. As part of its goal to protect food lands, the Trust recognizes and respects Indigenous food systems.
“Years ago, when we started this process, we got feedback from the Indigenous people we were working with that we were excluding them,” says Pritchard. Through this dialogue, which started at a gathering held by the BC Food Systems Network and continues with Dawn Morrison of the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty, the trust came to understand the term farmland “did not include land that was part of an Indigenous food system that had to do with hunting and gathering and foraging.”
The trust intends to include First Nations stakeholders in decisions about land use, where it is possible and makes sense to do so. They no longer view the land in terms of just production. “We are looking at the whole ecology of the land,” says Pritchard. “We are opening up to a much broader perspective of where our food comes from.”
The Foodlands Trust will eventually be a stand-alone organization, but for now it is a spinoff under FFCF’s umbrella. The project signed the papers to transfer Lohbrunner Farm, 13.4 acres in Langford, from the TLC to the FFCF on Aug. 18, 2016 and is awaiting court approval. The transfer process gives the organization the opportunity to learn the legal mechanisms of taking land into trust, and to develop protocols and procedures for managing it. “What our funders wanted us to do was have a pilot,” says Pritchard, “something we could all work on so that we would be able to know what all the protocols and procedures of it are.”
In terms of the ALR, Pritchard says they see the trust as complementary. She believes in the ALR, but, like many critics, she says land is too expensive and the ALC doesn’t have the ability or the mandate to protect the soil, decide on farming practices, or stop people from building “a mega house.”
“They are just super-busy with either considering applications to have land excluded or applications to have variances on the land,” says Pritchard. She thinks the Foodlands Trust can fill the gaps left by the ALR’s limitations, and hopes the ALC will help by spreading the word. “We want them to understand what we are doing and support us in that way,” she says.
In the past, the ALC has not taken part in discussions about creating additional covenants and trusts because “they believe they are already protecting the land for farming,” says Pritchard. However, current chair Frank Leonard says, “I’m willing to revisit it.” He has arranged for individuals advocating for the ALC’s support to meet with the commission’s CEO.
Whether or not the ALC becomes a partner and creates new measures to encourage farming and protect the ecological health of the soil, the ALR remains a relevant and necessary tool that protects farmland from urban encroachment and development. That said, allowing non-farm uses in zone two of the ALR, even those that don’t diminish productivity, causes land prices to rise even further and signals the B.C. government’s weakening commitment to the Agricultural Land Commission Act. With the 2017 provincial election approaching, farmers and food gatherers will be watching closely to see if the issue is part of the campaign, and while everyone has a stake in protecting food land and increasing productivity, the ALR’s fate will be felt most acutely by these hardworking providers.
Four days a week for most of the year, the Madrona farm stand busts with food and bustles with customers eager to get in on the bounty. Birds sing and scoop berries from the hedgerows that surround the farm and protect buzzing bees. Such fruits are not the product of one season’s efforts but of years of cultivating soil—and relationships. While politics may run in four-year cycles, the well-being of people and the land does not. As Nathalie and David Chambers labour in their fields, cultivating soil and planting seeds, they hold not only the tools of their trade, but also the long-term vision and commitment to the land that healthy food systems thrive on.