Saving land for agriculture is more important than ever.
That’s the view of Harold Steves and Richard Bullock, two experts who have been touring the province talking about what they see as a desperate need to continue and enhance the Agricultural Land Reserve in B.C.
Steves (a longtime Richmond councillor and an MLA in the early 1970s, who helped establish the ALR) says there’s a real need to face down increasing pressures from developers.
He spoke at a special meeting at Glenora Hall earlier this year, arranged by Cowichan Green Community titled “The Future of Farmland and the Agricultural Land Reserve”.
He gave a presentation on why the ALR was needed originally, and what has happened to it in the years since its inception, and also touched on some innovative moves the City of Richmond has made to ensure at least some of its land remains in agricultural use.
Steves said that push came to shove over farmland in Richmond in 1957 when the Oak Street Bridge opened.
Housing development began to flow south of the Fraser River into an area that had previously been primarily agricultural. The municipality was changed forever.
“In 1959, two years after the bridge was constructed, Richmond council rezoned half of its land for residential and industrial use,” he said.
Half? Eyebrows went up around the hall.
“Yes. They rezoned about 1,000 small farms, mostly five-acre parcels owned by Ukrainian and Japanese farmers. The council of the day decided they were not ‘real’ farms like the bigger ones.”
The Steves family farm was in that area; he decided it was time to act.
City councillors thought because “Vancouver was expanding and it was too expensive to put roads and services on a mountainside [north of that city], it was much easier to do it on farmland in Richmond,” Steves said.
Next up in the ambitious 50s was a tunnel under the Fraser River, which further spurred development southwards.
The writing was on the wall, and by 1968, Steves and others had started working on the idea of an Agricultural Land Reserve to stop politicians turning farmland into residential property.
A resolution for a reserve got NDP support. Steves ran for MLA himself and was elected for the NDP in 1972.
He gave some important farming details from those times.
“In 1973, we were losing 10,000 acres [of farmland] per year. Only one per cent of B.C. land is alluvial soil and back then that was producing 86 per cent of all our veggies. Now [that kind of land] is producing only 43 per cent of them,” Steves said.
Another big priority for an Agricultural Land Reserve was a land bank to provide property for young farmers.
The idea caught on with the general public, if not with farmers eager to cash out their “retirement funds”, Steves said.
But a coincidental insurance program helped at least one group of farmers through a crisis.
“A lot of blueberry farmers were going broke at that time. Blueberries are one of the most lucrative crops [now], regardless of the ALR, but without that insurance program, most of those blueberry farms wouldn’t be here today.”
Meanwhile, B.C.’s attempt to specifically save farmland was attracting notice worldwide.
In 1976, Steves was invited to speak at the United Nations’ Habitat for Humanity forum and the UN adopted the concept of an agricultural land reserve, although only a few countries followed up.
By 2013, by which time B.C. was importing heavily from California, agriculture watchers were waving red flags, Steves said.
“B.C. gets 84 per cent of our broccoli and cauliflower, 68 per cent of lettuce, 69 per cent of carrots, turnips and other root vegetables, and 76 per cent of strawberries come from there.”
Thousands of acres of small farms in Richmond that became residential property had previously produced “huge, huge amounts” of strawberries and the loss of that crop meant that Empress Jams in Vancouver “couldn’t get enough strawberries and went out of business,” he said.
In the intervening years, public support has veered around to supporting the idea of preserving farm land.
A 72 per cent vote on a referendum led to the $26 million purchase by the municipality of 100 acres of land, which is used for a lot of community-based projects, he said.
“We’ve got 100 garden plots, a school garden, a sharing farm for the food bank, and a medicinal garden.
“In 2006, some UN people approached the city. One of them, from Beijing, said, ‘We’re actually thinking of knocking houses down because we’ve covered all our farmland with cities. We’ve done the wrong thing.’”
But, more is afoot in Richmond.
The community is even restoring a long-buried slough and they are stocking it with chum salmon, a species that seems to be adaptable to climate change.
Another 136-acre piece of central Richmond, near tall high rises, is now called Garden City Lands.
“We collected $60 million in development charges to buy parkland over the years and we bought 136 acres for a farm,” Steves said.
However, immediate threats continue as realtors try to convince overseas buyers that farmland flipping is the quick way to make a pile of money, he said.
Another threat is the Massey Bridge project.
Steves also urged those concerned about farmland to look beyond the southwest corner of the province, saying the proposed Site C dam in northern B.C. will, at one stroke, remove 30,000 acres of the province’s best alluvial soil.
“That is enough land to feed a million people,” Steves said. “Agriculture land is under threat and the public needs to know. To destroy this topsoil is a criminal act,” he said.
Bullock, a former chair of the Agricultural Land Commission, which deals with the Agricultural Land Reserve, also spoke at Glenora Hall and echoed many of Steves’ concerns.
He called the five years he served as ALC chair “the highlight of his agricultural career” but was disappointed that the same talk about preserving farmland has been going on for so long.
“There shouldn’t be any argument now. We all agree that farmland’s precious. We should look after it.”
Bullock said it’s also time for property purchasers to stop pretending they didn’t know they were buying ALR land.
“The ALC should not be in the [rezoning] application processing business any longer.”
Bullock acknowledged that while municipalities do have to grow, using agricultural land should be the last option.
He said his attempts to discourage people wanting quick zoning flips led to his firing as ALC chair in 2015.
“That came up against the big boys that finance and fund governments. I’ve thought about this for a while and I’m getting more upset about it all the time,” Bullock said.
Steves and his like brought in the ALR because there was a problem.
“It was acted on, and we’re still acting on it today,” Bullock said.
“But, we’re having the same arguments Harold had 40 years ago. And it’s not fine tuning, it’s an out and out assault. Pressure is coming from every source. The last change [to the Commission] entrenched six regions in this province. The only thing the ALC does now is direct traffic.”
That change was aimed at Bullock himself, he said, calling for action on a wide scale.
“If I was premier of this province, I’d say ALR land is not going anywhere and to anyone’s who’s bought it: ‘Get your speculator hat off.’ I can guarantee you that person would be re-elected in this province on that one issue alone,” he said, to applause.
He echoed Steves, saying that people need to see beyond the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island.
“We don’t talk nearly enough about what’s elsewhere; 50 per cent of the agricultural land in this province is in the Peace River country.
“In my opinion, with climate change upon us, the future of agriculture is in the north of this province. High intensity farming is very hard to do in the Fraser Valley. The north of this province is ideally suited for that kind of scale agriculture,” he said.
Former Cowichan Valley regional agrologist Wayne Haddow said he thinks a growing relationship between consumers and producers “means there is more support for the agricultural sector, which in turn means greater support for things like the Agricultural Land Reserve.
However, there is always more need to educate the public, to help them understand the relationship between production and processing and maintenance of the agricultural landscape and viewscape.
“It all fits together: agritourism needs the viewscape to do a good job of marketing, and the farm community needs help to deal with the interface between the rural and agricultural interests. That all comes back to planning for agriculture,” he said.
The CVRD developed a brochure called Farming in the Countryside explaining to newcomers to the region that they should pay attention to where they are locating.