Two solitudes on B.C. farmland

Tom Fletcher brings his perspective to the latest debate over B.C.’s agricultural land reserve.

VICTORIA – My late father used to say that if he ever won the lottery, he would “farm until it’s all gone.”

It was 1960 when he and my mother pulled up stakes in the Okanagan, where their families had been for generations, and moved north to carve a homestead out of a half section in the Peace River country.

So it’s a mainly northern perspective that I bring to the latest debate over B.C.’s agricultural land reserve. A dialogue of the deaf has been going on for decades in B.C., where there are two separate realities in agriculture.

The dominant voice is always from the southwest, from the Okanagan to the Fraser Valley to southern Vancouver Island. This is not only B.C.’s most productive land, it’s also the place of greatest population and development pressure, where three million of the province’s four million residents live and more arrive every day.

In the rest of the province, except for pockets that are attractive for recreational development, farming is a tough row to hoe. These days, people are more likely to be moving away.

In our urbanized society, the loudest voices tend to be the least informed, from backyard-chicken hipsters to what I call “drive-by environmentalists,” who like to look out their car windows at green fields as they motor from their subdivisions to big-box stores. The elderly Sikhs and Mexican guest workers bent over in the fields don’t need their lofty lectures on “food security.”

Voices from the rest of the province are seldom heard and quickly shouted down, as was the case at the recent Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in Vancouver.

Merritt councillor Mike Goetz pleaded for relief from an Agricultural Land Commission that refuses to release a property that has “grown nothing but rocks and tumbleweeds for the last 100 years.” Similar property next door was released, but not this parcel, blocking a project for five years in a little town that could use the work and additional tax base. Urban sprawl isn’t a big problem in Merritt, which like many small towns is trying to hang onto its population.

Spallumcheen councillor Ed Hanoski described the situation beyond the towns, the real rural B.C. He proposed easing the restrictions on building a second home on farm properties.

Currently, farmers can put a mobile home on their property for an elderly or infirm relative, but nothing with a permanent foundation. Once that relative moves or passes away, the home is supposed to be removed.

Hanoski said a sewage system for such a residence costs around $12,000. Add the temporary foundation, skirting, well hookup, power, landscaping, driveway, and a mobile home that will lose its value if it has to be moved, and the property owner takes a loss of $150,000 or more.

That’s why the removal rule is routinely ignored in rural B.C., Hanoski said. These second homes are the only rental stock there is, providing modest income for marginal farms, and should be allowed permanent foundations. Motion defeated, after a scolding from a Sunshine Coast delegate about people lusting to build mansions on farmland.

I asked Bill Bennett, the cabinet minister in charge of the latest agricultural land review, about a rumoured proposal to split the province into two zones with different rules. He declined to comment, but described the case of Fort Steele Farms, the East Kootenay community’s only market garden that almost closed because the next generation was initially refused permission for a second home.

The two zones approach deserves serious consideration.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. tfletcher@blackpress.ca

 

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