By Lyonel Doherty
A new advisory committee report highlights the importance of revitalizing the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and curtailing its erosion in B.C.
An independent committee for revitalizing agricultural land and the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) has submitted its interim report to Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham.
“The ALC plays a key role in protecting the ALR and encouraging farming throughout our province,” she said.
The committee identified 13 recommendations for legislative and regulatory change, and four recommendations for action to protect the ALR.
The committee also submitted a “what we heard” report summarizing the findings from stakeholder meetings and public engagement held from February to April 30 this year.
The report focuses on three recommendations for immediate action: Changes to the ALC Act to address impediments to a strong ALR; action to ensure that federal legalization of cannabis does not have an irrevocable impact on the integrity of the ALR; and development of a strategy to promote responsible resource extraction while protecting the ALR.
After consulting with stakeholders, the committee identified an urgent need for a province-wide shift to an “agriculture-first” focus in the ALR.
The committee says unless the provincial government raises the profile of agriculture, “the erosion of the ALR and the decline of B.C.’s agricultural industry is a certainty.”
Another urgent need it identified is curbing residential speculation in the ALR.
As urban land prices increase and the population grows, the pressure to develop agricultural land continues. This is resulting in land taken out of production by investors and speculators who are being allowed to exploit tax incentives intended only for those who farm.
Pinder Dhaliwal, president of the BC Fruit Growers’ Association, has seen this happen firsthand.
He said you can see this in Kelowna, the Fraser Valley and even in Oliver where people have purchased farmland but nothing is growing there except manicured lawns in front of mansions. Dhaliwal said these investors can merely obtain their agriculture status by having a few chickens on the property.
Dhaliwal said these former agricultural properties are being sold off and losing their productivity.
“I drive to Kelowna and see a lot of (these) orchards disappear.”
The committee heard unanimous support for prohibiting estate-style homes in the ALR and restricting homes over an established size. The report goes on to say that purchase of ALR land by non-farmers is pushing the cost of land out of reach for true farmers.
Dhaliwal said preserving agriculture land is important because “we don’t want to lose what we have (left).”
Despite the important role of the ALC, agricultural land continues to be targeted for uses other than farming, and farmers receive fewer supports and incentives to actually farm the land, the report says.
Dhaliwal also believes the rules for agriculture should be the same in every municipality. For example, he said it’s unfair if one community can grow cannabis and another one can’t.
The committee is recommending an immediate moratorium on all non-soil bound cannabis production in the ALR (pending provincial analysis). Following this analysis, it is recommended the ALC establish rules and criteria for marijuana production.
The advisory committee’s key recommendations include immediate legislative and regulatory change to protect the ALR land base, preserve its productive capacity, improve governance and support farmers in the ALR.
The committee urges protection by mitigating the impacts of oil and gas activity in the ALR and restricting marijuana production in the ALR as well.
The issue of cannabis being grown in the ALR was a common concern heard among stakeholders, according to the committee.
Other recommendations include reinstating a one-zone ALR decision-making model; strengthening ALC compliance and enforcement tools; removing the ALC’s capacity to delegate non-farm use decision-making authority to local governments; only consider exclusion of ALR land through a joint local government-ALC planning process; and requiring all local government bylaws that affect the ALR to be endorsed by the ALC.
Nirmal Dhaliwal, a director on the board of BC Tree Fruits Cooperative, said he totally supports the protection of ALR land. But he noted that you can’t protect the land unless you protect the people who farm it.
“They need to be successful . . . . food doesn’t grow by itself . . . farmers have to survive, too.”
Nirmal said farmers need more programs to help them make a decent living on their farms. He stated the AgriStability program needs to be improved to compensate farmers who take losses in any given year. According to Nirmal, the program doesn’t fairly compensate growers the way it should.
The tree fruit grower also believes that everything related to agricultural land should be governed by the ALC, not cities and towns. And like Pinder, he strongly believes that the rules should be the same in each municipality, noting you can’t have each one doing something different in the ALR.