A popular agriculture advocate from Oliver is being mourned by officials with the Agricultural Land Commission and the local MLA after his passing this week.
Greg Norton was one of three commissioners with the B.C. Agricultural Land Commission. He was also a member and spokesperson of the Grasslands Park Review Coalition, a group that opposed the national park in the South Okanagan, something that has seen some new life breathed into it with the new B.C. NDP government.
“He’s dearly loved by our commissioners and staff. We were very fond of him, and he was a valuable member of the team, but as a person he was someone we all liked and thought a lot of and wanted to be around and wanted to talk to and wanted to have dinner with,” said ALC chair Frank Leonard. “We feel like we’ve lost a member of our extended family.”
Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson said she had grown to know Norton over the past 25 years, saying she was “shocked” to hear of his death.
“The work that he has done in agriculture is something over the years that he’s made an incredible difference. He was instrumental in the sterile insect release program. He was chair of the regional district board when that came into being. That is a phenomenal thing, as you know, and it has made a huge difference to the viability of apple growers,” she said.
“That’s just one of a list of things that was too long for me to even put up on my Facebook that he’s been involved with over the years, so huge loss to the agricultural community.”
Larson said she hadn’t heard the exact cause of Norton’s death, but it had something to do with his heart.
A fruit farmer in Oliver since 1988, the ALC’s profile of Norton described him as “active in his community,” and notes an extensive résumé.
He served as chair of the Agricultural Area Plan Committee Rural Oliver, chair of the Environmental Farm Plan Working Group, chair of the Agriculture Research and Development, chair of the Agriculture Environment Initiatives Board, and president of the Loose Bay Campground Society, where he housed migrant workers for generations.
He was also past president and director of the Okanagan Cherry Growers Association, past chair and director of the Regional District Okanagan-Similkameen, past vice-president of the B.C. Wildlife Federation, and the founding chair of the Sterile Insect Release Program.
“He was, and it’s incredibly sad, looking forward to backing off a little bit. I know he had cut down on the size of his farm, and he was really enjoying the ALC board,” Larson said. “At 65, it’s, like I say, very, very sad.”
Because of that extensive list of roles Norton took on, Larson described him as irreplaceable in the community.
“I don’t think there’s anybody quite like Greg. I think he was a one-of-a-kind,” she said. “Hopefully they will find somebody equally as passionate about agriculture to replace him on the ALC board.”
Leonard, too, said he didn’t expect to find anybody as broadly experienced as Norton to fill the now-vacant spot on the ALC’s Okanagan panel.
“He had everything on the list — local government background, active in the community background, active in the agriculture community background; active in agriculture, himself; looked to as an expert in the field of agriculture. I think he’s been to Europe a couple of times as an expert,” Leonard said.
“So when you’re looking for someone to go on the land commission, you’re looking for one of those things. You don’t get them all.”
According to Oliver Daily News, he grew up in the South Okanagan, graduating from the South Okanagan Secondary School in 1970 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Oliver in 1993.
His October 2014 appointment to the ALC stirred a bit of controversy, with the Globe and Mail’s B.C. columnist Gary Mason calling it a conflict of interest.
“If this isn’t a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is. I can just imagine the howls from some ranchers in the area had a park advocate been named to the same panel,” Mason wrote, noting the proposed park included parts of the Agricultural Land Reserve.
“It wouldn’t be allowed to stand, and neither should Mr. Norton’s appointment.”
But Leonard, who was appointed to the ALC a year after Norton, said Norton had one of the best track records among the commissioners.
“I did a chuckle when I went back and read (the Globe article), because Greg had his views, and I think he still had some media around the national park two or three months ago, but he didn’t carry it with him when he was acting as a commissioner,” he said.
“The three of them on the Okanagan panel are first class. … Really, their decisions that they make, they did so many site visits. Even when people get a refusal, we don’t get anywhere near the amount of appeals we do elsewhere in the province, and I think it’s because those three are so thorough.”