Business not as usual on farmland

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick has released the update to the Liberal government’s “strategic growth plan” for farm and food products.

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick has released the latest update to the B.C. Liberal government’s “strategic growth plan” for farm and food products.

After reporting a record $12.3 billion in total agriculture and agri-food sales in B.C. for 2014, the latest plan sets a new goal of increasing it to $15 billion by 2020.

It’s mostly a status quo plan, continuing current marketing efforts and encouraging higher-value production of a wider range of products.

The ministry intends to hire its first expert in food and beverage production. It’s a reflection of the fact that fully 70 per cent of that $12.3 billion comes from food and beverage processing. This continues the government’s push to improve economic viability of farms by allowing more food product manufacturing and sales on Agricultural Land Reserve property.

Letnick says another key strategy is to improve access to irrigation. B.C. has 20,000 farm operations, a number that’s holding steady even as the average age of farmers increases.

Opposition MLAs formed their own agriculture committee to tour the province over the past year, chaired by NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham and independent Delta South MLA Vicki Huntington. Their report speaks to some of the issues not discussed by the government.

One of those is foreign purchase of farmland, a matter subject to regulation in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba but not B.C.

Properties have also been purchased to grow hay for export to Asia, and Huntington says she continues to hear of costly farmland in Delta and Surrey being bought at prices long-established farm families can’t afford.

We’ve seen a British food and drug conglomerate buy up B.C. Interior farms to plant trees for carbon offsets, a project that was wound down after local protests.

Popham and Huntington are calling for a systematic inventory of foreign purchases, to determine if regulation is needed here as climate change shifts growing patterns.

Popham argues that with California enduring years of drought, B.C. can’t continue to depend on imports for more than half its food.

“We have countries that are actively seeking food producing land, because their countries are having difficulties producing under drought conditions,” Popham said. “So before we know it, our farmland could be bought up by other countries that are actively and smartly trying to ensure their own food security.”

Neither Letnick nor the opposition MLAs could produce results from the government’s decision to split the Agricultural Land Reserve into two zones, with more latitude for non-farm activities outside the southwest and Okanagan.

But we’re starting to see signs of the new system of regional Agricultural Land Commission panels working with local governments.

The Langley Times reports that the Township of Langley quietly signed a deal with the ALC in July to allow development of farmland near the Aldergrove border crossing and Langley airport.

The agreement says there is a need for a “defensible and durable urban/ALR edge.” If you think everyone loves farming, you’ve likely never lived on this “urban/ALR edge.”

The latest example is on Vancouver Island, where urban neighbours are protesting an established farmer’s decision to clear a forested property for hay growing.

The farmer has been forced to erect a chain-link fence to keep out trespassers who have decided the property is a park that they can use when they like.

The mayors of Saanich and View Royal seem more concerned with appeasing urban complainers than protecting the right to farm. They are being pressed to buy up idle ALR land to soothe urban voters repelled by logging and farming.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca,Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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