Speaking up for the ALR

The Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) was created by the Province of British Columbia forty years ago – with the passage of the Land Commission Act in 1973 – to protect 4.5-million hectares of arable land for food production purposes. The ALR was considered essential as thousands of hectares of the best farm land was being lost annually to real-estate subdivisions and other industural and commercial purposes – in a mountainous province where only 5% of the landbase for suitable for food production.

Since the creation of the ALR, land owners wishing to alter private land or put it into use for non-agricultural purposes must seek approval from the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), an arms-length public agency entrusted with a mandate of agriculture.

Today, in the face of climate change, rising energy costs and growing awareness of the public health, social, and environmental benefits of local food production and consumption, the ALR and ALC are more important than ever.

~ Farmland Protection Coalition

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As a farmer, it feels important to me to write a bit to our CSA members about the ALR, and why it is so important to agriculture in our community and in our province.

I value the ALR and think it’s essential to our future in BC. Without it, we will not have land to grow our food – it’s that simple. The ALC, created in the early 70’s, was a visionary idea that politicians implemented to protect farmland for their children and grandchildren’s food supply.

In a conversation about land, and land use, I feel compelled to say that the land we now call British Columbia is first and foremost Indigenous territory, much of it unceded. As a descendent of settlers, and thus a settler myself, I understand that land in the ALR is Indigenous territory. And I acknowledge that there the consequences of policies that our government is promoting in favour of resource extraction and development have various effects on all kinds of communities within the place we now call British Columbia.

farmland-pricesWhen I was a kid, I loved farms. I grew up in southern Ontario, in Guelph, Holland Landing and Burlington. These cities are surrounded by gorgeous farmland – or, at least, they used to be. I remember my Mom and Dad would pack us into the car on a summery Sunday and drive out to local farms to buy sweet corn, fresh apples, or just to visit and look at the beautiful places. My brother and I played  in hay lofts and barns, and saw chickens, fields and cows. I remember drives through the countryside to visit my grandparents in a neighbouring community and spending the drive in silence, absorbing the scenes of barns, old farmhouses and rolling fields and hedgerows.

B821437150Z.1_20131123092138_000_G4V148HHS.2_ContentAs an adolescent, I started to notice changes in the farmscape around us. The suburb we lived in was expanding rapidly. Every month, a new farm was sold and eaten up by a new housing development. In my late teens, several hundred acres of farmland was swallowed up by the 407 toll highway. Fields full of crops and crickets were smothered by cookie cutter housing tracts and endless pavement. I still grieve for the disappearance of these farms.

When I moved to BC and found out about the ALR, I was amazed to see the way that this province had protected so much farmland. BC is the envy of the rest of what we now call Canada. 4.5 million hectares of farmland are protected in our province. While additional efforts need to be made to ensure this farmland is being actively farmed, our government is taking a step backwards. Because my heart is still broken by watching the farmland of my childhood destroyed, I take this new legislation very personally.

Taking it personally

As farmers and eaters, we should all be taking Bill 24 very personally. It’s hitting us right in the gut and crashing the party at our dinner table.

Bill 24 is being debated for the second time in the legislature this week. This bill would divide the ALR into two zones. The first zone, which includes Vancouver Island, the South Coast and the Okanagan would remain the same. Zone 2 would encompass the other 90% of protected farmland in BC and would introduce looser regulations – opening up farmland to development, and mineral and oil & gas exploration.

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While Bill 24 doesn’t specify how farmland will be able to be used for non-agricultural activities, it sets the stage for further erosion of farmland protection in the future. Bill Bennett cites minor cases of land use dispute between some of his East Kootenay constituents and the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) the regulating body for the ALR as the reason for this legislation. While I agree that ALR regulations can present challenges for farmers (the inability to build additional housing for farmers leasing land and family on ALR land is an issue for many of us), that doesn’t mean we should slacken the rules or dismantle the system. Intelligent changes can be made to the ALR through detailed public consultation that do not compromise the ability of the ALC to protect farmland.

But this legislation isn’t about improving the ALR, it’s about getting it out of the way so oil & gas, mining and development can move in.

My deepest concern is that these changes to the ALR put farmers who lease land at risk. If someone can frack or mine on ALR land and make a bunch of money, why would they continue to lease their land to farmers at a low cost?

Needless to say, farmers in the proposed “Zone 2” are pretty upset about this:

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Corky Evans, former BC Minister of Agriculture farms in the proposed “Zone 2” as well. Listen to his thoughts on CBC All Points West.

How did this happen? It all started with a shady thing called the “Core Review Committee,” which was struck to find more efficiencies in government. The public line at the time was that they were not looking at changing the ALR. Some of us actually showed up a few months ago at a web-based meeting at NIC  to talk about the ALR, and were told we could speak, but the Core Review was not about the ALR. All along the way, Bill 24 has been created in the shadows, and our voices have been kept out.

East Kootenay MLA and Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett heads up this committee, and is disingenuously spreading the rumour that Bill 24 is all about protecting farmers. He says that allowing farmers make a living from their land in non-agricultural ways will ensure that people stay in farming. He also likes to say that a lot of the land in the ALR isn’t really arable or useful for agricultural production of any kind. My question is, as Minister for Energy and Mines, what the heck does Bill Bennett know about the quality of farmland and what farmers need? Especially if he won’t talk to us.

Who else is behind this ALR-busting legislation? Steve Thomson, Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations. Pat Pimm, BC’s current Minister of Agriculture who’s career has been in the oil and gas sector up until now.

Stand up for the ALR

As “Zone 1” farmers and eaters, I believe we need to stand in solidarity with the rest of the farmers and eaters in BC and say no to changes in the ALR. It should be kept fully intact. If anything, we need tighter regulations to protect farmland in our province as we hurtle (most of us unwillingly) into an age of fracking, pipelines and mining.

We need farmland to feed people in our communities. We need more farmers. We need farmers to have better access to good farmland. We need more local food!

What you can do

Read up!

The Tyee – BC Loosens Restrictions on Swaths of Protected Farmland
Commons BC – BC’s Farmland Open to Fracking and Other Development? Stop Bill 24
Letter: Scrap ALR Proposal and Save Small Farmers – a Rossland Perspective

Speak up!
Write the premier, MLA Don McRae, Bill Bennett, Pat Pimm, and any other politician you like!
Print this petition and get your friends’ autographs
Check out the Farmland Protection Coalition on Facebook