Mid Island Farmers Institute leading the way
By Chris Hilliar
Despite a rainy blustery night, 35 farmers and interested folk showed up at the Merville Hall on Jan. 17 to discuss how the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and Commission (ALC) could be revitalized.
And discuss they did – for a full two hours. Problems and solutions were duly recorded and will form part of a submission to provincial Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham.
The Mid Island Farmers Institute hosted the meeting with President Arzeena Hamir facilitating. Arzeena is co-owner of the local Amara Farm. She has a Masters Degree in Sustainable Agriculture from the University of London, England, and was recently appointed by the province to sit on a nine-member independent committee tasked with revitalizing the ALR and ALC.
“The assumption,” she pointed out, “is that the ALR system is broken.”
Little wonder, the ALR is now 45 years old, its legislation has been adulterated and watered down by special interests over the course of 10 successive governments.
The ALR was originally created by the Dave Barrett NDP government in 1973 when the province was losing prime agricultural land at the alarming rate of 6,000 hectares per year. The ALR enjoyed high public support with a survey in 1997 showing that 80 percent of British Columbians considered it unacceptable to remove land from the ALR.
Fast-forward to 2014 and a B.C. public attitudes survey revealed that 44 percent of British Columbians had heard little or nothing about the ALR.
But, attendees at the Farmers Institute meeting had clearly heard about the ALR and were quite aware of its benefits and shortcomings.
The designation of farmland into the Agricultural Land Reserve is contentious as some potentially excellent farmland is currently left out of the ALR and some poor quality land is currently held within the ALR.
Some expressed concern about non-agricultural uses of ALR land and the commission itself also came under fire for lack of enforcement, lack of transparency and political interference in its decision-making.
It also became apparent that the economics of farming are not easy on Vancouver Island.
Transportation, both on and off the Island is costly and the loss of the Island railway has affected farm prices and delivery. The small farmer with fixed costs faces an uphill battle against the big food corporations who can discount transportation costs with the result that imported food is often cheaper than locally grown food.
Housing for farm workers is also a problem both here and elsewhere in the province.
The high price of land is preventing young people from starting to farm and exacerbates the problem of succession planning for older farmers.
Some expressed concern that the purchase of land by marijuana growers will drive up land prices and food farmers will not be able to compete.
An added complication is how the province designates land as farmland, which has implications for taxation. Some felt that agri-tourism should not be allowed to be 100 percent of farm income to achieve farm status.
And, to no surprise, some suggested the recent government approval of the Site C Dam on the Peace River would set a precedent for the B.C. government to not protect farmland.
But it wasn’t just problems that were raised at the Merville meeting, there were lots of solutions too.
Someone suggested that the province should buy large farms that come on the market and then lease parcels out to young prospective farmers. They also suggested a Farmers’ Co-op could be established to provide low-interest funding for farming and that the province could help offset costs associated with the Water Act.
Insurance companies need to start recognizing the replacement value of farm buildings not just the assessed value and some felt there should be rewards and incentives for organic certification.
The crowd was also reminded that we could learn from other cultures. Many European countries have a very different style of land use where everyone, including farmers, lives in small villages surrounded by extensive open farmland with no domestic dwellings consuming large amounts of valuable food growing area — surely a stark contrast to the monster homes we sometimes see sitting on prime farmland in BC.
The Mid Island Farmers Institute has just started to compose their submission to send to the Provincial ALR committee.
If you have a comment that you would like to make to the Mid Island Farmers’ Institute you can contact them at: email@example.com
Chris Hilliar is a Citizen Journalist for The Civic Journalism Project. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org