Shuswap agricultural advocates argue proposed changes to how the province manages farmland have little do with helping the people who work it.
On March 27, the B.C. government announced how it would be improving the Agriculture Land Commission, the independent body tasked with protecting farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The changes were the result of a cabinet “core review” headed by Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett. A news release states the changes will “protect farmland and maintain the ALC’s independence.”
“These improvements achieve our goals of supporting the ALC in its role as independent decision maker, protecting our high-quality farmland and still support farmers to get ahead,” states Bennett in the release.
But John McLeod, retired farmer and president of the Shuswap Food Action Co-op, has a different take on the changes recommended in Bill 24 – the Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, which, in summary, he refers to with a pejorative term approximating “bull fertilizer.”
“When Christy Clark won the last election, there wasn’t one word about doing a core review on the agricultural land reserve or commission – she has no mandate to do this,” says McLeod, who believes the key changes in the amendment are to accommodate the premier’s mandate to get liquid natural gas flowing – even from agricultural land.
“They don’t have plan (for agriculture),” said McLeod. “What they have is a plan to go and frack!”
With Bill 24 the B.C. government will be dividing the ALR into two zones, Zone 1 covering everything from the Okanagan to the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island, and Zone 2, which takes in the rest of the province. Another major change is that applications for exclusion or subdivision from/on ALR land, normally overseen by the entire ALC, will now go before one of six respective regional panels – Interior, Island, Kootenay, North, Okanagan and South Coast. Each panel will consist of a vice-chair and two commissioners, appointed from their region of responsibility. While Zone 1 panels are tasked to uphold the traditional mandate of the ALC – the preservation of agricultural land, Zone 2 panels must also consider what the province refers to as, “economic, cultural and social values;” “regional and community planning objectives;” and “other prescribed considerations.” This is a concern for Shuswap organic farmer, Crannog Ales co-owner Rebecca Kneen.
“The mandate process and what they call in government speak, “measurables,” are not by the ALC, but by the government, and that is a fairly major shift in policy,” said Kneen. “That’s a fairly major concern because, essentially, it removes the independence of the land commission to act on behalf of the land itself and on behalf of agriculture.
“What they’re saying is, ‘you can go ahead and do things the way you’ve been doing them, but only once we’ve told you what it is you’re supposed to be doing,’ which is a pretty major difference.”
Another goal of the province with Bill 24 is to make agricultural land more viable for farmers in Zone 2, giving the ALC “broader flexibility to consider non-agricultural home-based business.” Kneen interprets this as helping farmers by giving them an excuse to remove land from the ALR.
“And that’s going to somehow help farmers make a living as farmers?” asks Kneen. “If that’s not entirely illogical, I’m at a loss to define illogic.”
Kneen has been working with McLeod and others on the Columbia Shuswap Regional District’s Grow Shuswap agricultural committee, which, among other things, is looking at other ways to help farmers without sacrificing any ALR land in B.C. (which represents five per cent of the province’s land base).
“If we want to help farmers make a living at it, we can stop taking land away so that there is land – that helps,” laughs Kneen. She also suggests finding new ways for young farmers to access to farmland, not contaminating farmland, having buy-local policies at regional and local levels, through to legislation that actually supports farmers and farmland and improving the market for local product, “so farmers can actually sell what they’ve got for a decent amount of money.”
Kneen would have gladly shared her thoughts with the core review committee if there had been consultation, but as she and McLeod point out, Bill 24 was announced with no prior public consultation.
Bennett publicly admitted after the fact that the committee could “have done a better job at consultations.”
The BC Food Systems Action Network is calling on the province to put aside the bill and start again, this time through a respectful consultation process similar to what the province did with the Water Sustainability Act.
“Not all of us might be super-excited with what they did in the end, but that was like a six-year consultation across the province,” said BCFSN co-chair Abra Brynne, noting B.C.’s gross farm receipts in 2011 totalled $2.9 million – from less than 200,000 farms. “Our land base is just as important as our water.”
Kneen agrees there are issues with the ALR and related regulations, but notes most of the amendments she has seen have revolved around “taking land out of the land reserve rather than making it possible for people to continue to farm in more effective ways.
“So it may be there are ways of making it possible for more than one family to live on a piece of farmland and farm it, within the ALR and without destroying agricultural land.”