New legislation reunites the ALR and curbs speculation but will it help B.C.’s farmers?

By Cameron Welch

When the B.C. NDP brought forward the Agriculture Land Commission Amendment Act last November, it was never a question that Bill 52 would reunite the province’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) into a single zone again, after the Liberal government had split it four years ago. That part was a given. A crackdown on waste dumping and restrictions of dwelling sizes to 500 square metres (5,400 square feet) were expected too.

But could would these changes return B.C.’s farmland to being used primarily as productive soil, rather than as investment property? That remains the big—and still unanswered—question.

Dave Barrett’s NDP government created the in 1973 creation to restrict non-agricultural land use in a 4.7-million-hectare zone comprising about five percent of B.C.’s land. When the Christy Clark government split the ALR in two in 2014 through Bill 24, Zone 1 maintained stricter use restrictions intended to protect farmland from development and speculation in B.C.’s population centres: the Island, South Coast, and Okanagan. The second half of the new ALR, which applied to the nearly 90 percent of the original ALR land located in less-heavily-populated areas of the province, allowed property to be considered for uses other than farming. This change raised concerns the land might be opened up for resource extraction.

But one election later, fears that mining and heavy industry might exploit remote agricultural land has taken a backseat to concern over the warping of Zone 1 farmland from food-producing resources into luxury real-estate investments—the gentrification of B.C.’s food supply.

When the ALR task force launched by Agriculture Minister Lana Popham surveyed the agriculture industry, respondents’ biggest worry was about speculation on farmland for the purpose of building homes. And speculation has been the main topic in mainstream discussions of B.C. farmland for the past several years. One plot in Richmond made headlines when it sold for a hundred times its assessed value in 2017, fetching $9.2 million on an assessed value of under $85,000 (official assessment numbers are tied to only the value of the farmland). Popham has cited this purchase in her promotion of the new bill.

Luxury home on the ALR in Richmond. Photo: Google Maps

Bill 24’s headliner is the limit on home size. The clause is intended to prevent new owners from turning acreages into large plots for “megamansions,” with the land’s intended farming function secondary to its main value as luxury real estate. Individual municipalities enacted house size restrictions of their own following high-profile sales of ALR land at spectacular prices, although not all councils went far enough. The City of Richmond capped sizes at 10,700 square feet in early 2017, but rejected advocates’ demand to cut that limit in half, to 5,382 square feet, in May 2018. Voters pushed the issue again in the municipal elections, and Richmond council passed the more stringent restriction in early November—a somewhat redundant move, given that it came three weeks before the 5,400-square-foot limit became provincial law.

A 2016 Globe and Mail report found that speculators bought at least 73 of the 122 farmland plots sold between August 2015 and July 2016. Not only was farmland treated as valuable residential land, it was often even more appealing than regular residential land thanks to the lower property taxes of a farm designation. And although the likelihood of getting approval to remove purchased land from the ALR for major development was slim, a 2018 white paper introduced by RIchard Bullock, the former chair of the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), concluded that the massive increase in value that would result was enough to attract investors. (The ALR is overseen by the ALC.)

Residential-use purchasers were not simply in competition with farmers, they were handily outcompeting them. A 2016 Vancity report compared the point above which farmland stops being financially viable to farm ($80,000 per acre) with the actual prices of Metro Vancouver farmland: $150,000 to $350,000 for parcels under five acres, about $110,000 to 120,000 for 20 acres, and $50,000 to $80,000 for more than 40.

Nathalie Chambers is a farmer, an advocate for land stewardship, and a recently elected Saanich city councillor. She and her husband raised funds to buy Madrona Farm, the land they farm, and put it into a farmland trust to ensure it would be cost-controlled and used as to grow food in the long-term. Madrona is now part of The Land Conservancy, a charitable non-profit land trust that was created in 1997 with the mission of protecting B.C.’s biodiversity. Popham, a Saanich resident and MLA for Saanich South since 2009, helped the couple with their first fundraiser to make the purchase.

Chambers is thrilled with Popham’s approach to securing the province’s ALR. “We are in a speculation gold rush,” Chambers says. “We’re commodifying and liquifying our essence, which is our soil.”

Chambers gets animated when she talks about agro-ecology, a field she studied for the past 16 years. The volume of her voice spikes when she brings up either the magnificence of Island land or our collective betrayal of it. She calls southern B.C.’s soil the best in Canada for growing food and cautions that stronger ALR policy alone isn’t sufficient to preserve that fertility—especially when the reserve itself doesn’t always encompass all of a region’s good farmland. “Do I think the ALR or any mechanism is sufficient to protect what I know exists in this soil? No.”

Her priorities as a councillor include ensuring all good farmland is protected by the municipality’s Urban Containment Boundary (which sets out which land is developable in the city) and pushing for the Capital Regional District to either implement a previously passed farmlands trust or send it back to Saanich so council can implement it. But there’s only so much Chambers can do locally. When it comes to the ALR, she wants stronger soil protections and reviews of business licences.

Speculation for residential housing isn’t the only concern she has with ALR land use. She wants the province to also target misuses of agricultural land for industrial purposes spurred by the rising price of industrial land. “We need to respect our zoning,” she says, “because if we’re not watching our zoning, often people push the envelope of what is permitted and then, again, the price goes up.”

Bill 52 focuses on curbing one form of industrial misuse: construction dumping. In a November 19 press-release explaining the bill, Popham cites the 191 fill-related cases heard by the ALC in 2018—almost half of its total enforcement and compliance cases—as evidence of rampant dumping. Popham writes that, due to high returns for accepting construction waste and other dumping (up to $200 a truckload and up to hundreds of thousands of truckloads), “some people find it more lucrative to farm fill rather than food.” Her ministry’s response includes up to a $1 million fine and up to half a year of jail time for illegally dumping fill or removing soil from ALR land.

For Chambers, though, soil protection goes beyond eliminating such flagrant abuses. She opposes the building of dwellings and greenhouses on top of all high-quality soil. She believes that protecting the Island’s soil quality is not only practical for maintaining food production but also a duty that British Columbians have to land that was cared for responsibly for thousands of years.

“The Garry oak ecosystem is the source of fertility in the Saanich Peninsula,” says Chambers. “We need to emulate the land practices of the original Coast Salish that were the stewards of these lands.”

Young farmers working a row of greens
Photos: Ministry of Agriculture

Adam Olsen is the Green MLA for Saanich North and the Islands and and a member of the W̱JOȽEȽP (Tsartlip) First Nation. He is also hyperconscious of the damage done to the peninsula’s ecosystem. He narrates a history of settler-era land use that unfurls as a short-sighted tragedy: centuries-old forests chopped down to create farms, the local ecological structure and water system thrown out of equilibrium as a result, and then those same farms discarded only a few decades later to build suburbs.

Unlike Chambers’s hardline approach, Olsen believes the new law needs room for exceptions and allowances. He supports the ALR changes but feels the next challenge will be to add nuances that enable variety within farming practices without opening the door for real estate. For years, farmland has been under such threat from speculators that its protectors in government couldn’t concede an inch.

“I think about this in the [rural-urban] context of Central Saanich, where I was a councillor,” says Olsen. “We can’t let anything happen for fear that our food producing is going to be greatly diminished, because we saw strawberry fields in the 1970s and ‘80s turn into entire neighbourhoods.”

Olsen thinks the restrictions would be more comprehensive and flexible if, instead of going by size and number of houses, the rules focused more on a “home plate” (i.e., the footprint and impact of the non-farming uses including driveway size, quality of covered soil, etc.). The bill limits the number of residences to one, unless the ALC can be convinced another is “necessary for a farm use,” but Olsen doesn’t see why three smaller well-placed homes wouldn’t be just as good as a single large house with a long driveway and landscaping.

Delta South MLA Ian Paton, a dairy farmer and the B.C. Liberals’ agriculture critic, also believes footprint is more important than total size. He proposed an amendment that would have tied the limit to only the first floor and put it at 3,600 square feet while restricting the location to the corner or the lot, 60 metres from the road. But it was defeated. Placement rules are coming in the new year in the regulations package. According to Popham, these rules were too region-dependent to enshrine in the initial bill.

“People have asked why we didn’t put this into legislation, and that’s because we needed the flexibility,” says Popham. “So a farm in Delta that’s all flat would be completely different from a farm in Cranbrook that may have steep sections in it.”

Whether farmland is being farmed is more important than the number of people and houses on the plot, argus Paton, so he supports allowing smaller second homes for farmers’ grown children who want to keep farming but need their own space. The problem with the infamous Richmond megamansions is that the owners often aren’t farmers, and Paton believes that even within active agriculture land, there’s a double standard when it comes to occupancy and housing.

“[For] the greenhouse industry, it’s basically ‘fill your boots’ when it comes to bringing in basically permanent trailers for migrant workers,” Paton says, arguing that multi-generation farmers such as South Asian families in the Lower Mainland should be equally able to use their land for housing.

Olsen is mindful of the potential ethnocentrism of rules that assume single-family occupancy is the normal and universal way to live on a farm. “Different cultures live differently than each other,” he says. “I come from Indigenous communities, from First Nations communities, where we’ve got multiple generations, multiple families living together, and that’s a normal thing. I come from a longhouse culture.”

“The South Asian community, where you have multiple families providing supports for each other—there are huge benefits to this. There’s less need for senior care, there’s less need for child care. There are more family members working on the farm.”

Raised frequently in media analysis around Bill 52, the ability to live together with extended family on a family farm came up at a raucous late-November town hall in Delta. But the new bill does provide a straightforward way for landholders to get exemptions to house size and land-use restrictions. Municipalities will pass applications for larger sizes along to the Agricultural Land Commission, which will approve requests from farming families but not developers.

The criteria the ALC will use to sort the farmers from developers isn’t clear yet but will be set out when the regulations are released. The long-term stability and functioning of the commission was a key concern among the task force’s survey respondents, so Popham will introduce a second bill dealing with the ALC in the next legislative session.

The ALR bill may have a working mechanism to keep families on their farmland. But does it do enough to help farmers who don’t have an existing family plot? Azja Jones Martin is unsure that the new setup will do enough for her demographic.

Martin is a farmer and also works as a “land matcher” for the Young Agrarians network: she pairs landowners looking to lease and new farmers looking for plots. While she supports the restrictions on speculation, she isn’t sure they will do much more for young farmers than reassure them that the properties they lease won’t be sold for development at any moment. She doubts the new restrictions can bring land prices down enough for young farmers—most of whom lease their land—to afford to buy.

Popham acknowledges that property ownership is difficult in B.C. but believes the government’s work with the Young Agrarians on the land-matching program will give young people the opportunity to make a living as farmers despite not being farm-owners. “Land prices in general in B.C. are not affordable for new and young farmers,” says Popham. “I don’t think we can probably change legislation that allows that to happen. Land’s expensive here. Homes are expensive, and so not everyone will or not everybody wants to own a farm, but there are a lot of people who still want to farm.”

Popham believes the government’s work with the Young Agrarians on the land-matching program will give young people the opportunity to make a living as farmers despite not being farm owners. She also cites an educational program connecting young farmers with farmers easing into retirement and floats the potential to revitalize parts of northern and rural B.C. hurt by logging and mining downturns by connecting young farmers with the unused ALR land out there.

“If farmers aren’t able to live on the land, that’s a major obstacle,“ Martin says, pointing to the restrictions on farm accommodations that allow exceptions for farm employees but not leasers. Popham acknowledges that limitation but notes farm owners and their leasers could apply to the ALC for exceptions. Beyond that, Martin believes grants could go a long way toward making the jump from part-time farmer to a full-time agriculture career more feasible.

“Lots of people are getting into [farming], and I’m really excited about that,” says Martin, “but also I see so many people leaving that have put in a good four or five years and have built businesses but then give it up because they ultimately aren’t able to [scale up] to make the business sustainable in a way that lets them have at least a moderate work-life balance.”

Ag Minister Popham & Young Agrarians reps announce land-matching program

The B.C. Liberals have jumped on the angle that it’s difficult to make a living as a farmer. They argue that restricting non-farming activity on ALR land harms the side revenue streams that allow farmers to supplement their income.

Paton says that because most of B.C.’s climate limits how many months farms can be producing, other uses such as agritourism, storefronts, and artisan manufacturing should be allowed—provided they aren’t industrial activities that will damage the land. “As long as the farmer’s happily making a decent living, I guarantee you that farmland will always be there in production,” he says.

Rancher Max Winkleman argued in a 100 Mile House Free Press editorial that Bill 52’s changes mainly address problems in the southwest of the province. Mansion speculation and dumping don’t explain why, for example, over five years, Cariboo Area G has lost a fifth of its farms and half its cattle and calves.

“If you care about preserving farmland, this bill is great,” writes Winkleman. “If you care about B.C. farmers and B.C. food production, it’s hard to see it being of any help in 89 percent of B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve.”

Popham is conscious of the risk of falling into what former NDP agriculture minister Corky Evans described as protecting the farmland but forgetting about the farmer. But she believes those two concerns are more symbiotic than critics acknowledge.

“The best way as the provincial government that we can protect the Agricultural Land Reserve is to bring it into production and to make farming viable,” she says. Only half of the ALR is currently being farmed. Both Popham and Paton feel that land matching will do a lot to get the rest into use.

Olsen agrees that financial health for farmers and nutrient health for the soil are compatible, but he is adamant that food production needs to be protected against profit-driven thinking.

“We see time and time again that the value of other uses is put ahead of the value of agriculture,” he says. “Part of the governing of early civilizations was around food production, and we’ve now largely turned it over to market forces.” Olsen thinks governments have a responsibility to protect food-producing land. “It’s only in the last hundred years that we’ve been so insane as to allow other regions to entirely supply food for our communities.”

The Agriculture Ministry plans to take a major step toward reducing that dependence, creating business for farmers and localizing the province’s food production next year. The Feed BC initiative involves having B.C.’s healthcare sector purchase its food from B.C.’s growers and processors, guaranteeing a market. The shift has been slow-moving because of the coordination of two ministries, as well as various barriers and requirements that were prohibitive in past years.

But with distributors on board and a growing public appetite for eating local, the time is ripe for Feed BC and other similar initiatives. In the new year, the government will launch at least a pilot project providing an in-house market for the ALR’s products. When you’re betting on the farm, it helps to be able to stack the deck a little. For the time being, Bill 52 should at least keep the cards in play—instead of stacked up into towering houses. ♦