Farmland still under threat

Rising commodity prices have focused the world’s attention on the importance of food, but B.C. agriculture experts fear the crisis won’t do much to protect precious farmland here at home. - LEADER FILE PHOTO
Rising commodity prices have focused the world’s attention on the importance of food, but B.C. agriculture experts fear the crisis won’t do much to protect precious farmland here at home.
— image credit: LEADER FILE PHOTO

Food riots across the world and rising prices here may help drive home the need to protect the Lower Mainland's scarce agricultural land.

The higher prices should even bolster the use of the land for farming – instead of redevelopment into condos and office parks.

But the founder of B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve fears the crisis may actually have the opposite effect, at least over the short term.

Richmond Coun. Harold Steves worries it may trigger one last rush by developers to pave over ALR land in case much tougher rules are imposed.

"For a while, I think it's going to get worse," he predicted. "Some developers are thinking if they don't get their land out of the ALR now, it's never going to happen. The pressures are going to be incredible."

Steves has been fighting for farmland for years.

But even he is astounded at how quickly the issue of food security has blown up into a global crisis, causing governments to question their push to use food-based ethanol as fuel.

And he's hoping it will also refocus efforts on defending the ALR in B.C.

"We should not just be trying to stem the loss of land but to replace it," Steves said. "It's either that or get used to watching a lot more food riots on TV."

Metro Vancouver recorded a net decrease of 10.7 hectares of ALR land last year and just over 52 hectares were excluded in the Fraser Valley Regional District.

More than 275 hectares has been excluded from the ALR in the Lower Mainland over the past three years.

And more plans are in the works.

The Deltaport expansion is expected to trigger a major conversion of farmland for port-related development.

Richmond is weighing a federal proposal to develop the Garden City Lands.

Delta has backed developer Ron Toigo's plan to build homes and an expanded golf course in Tsawwassen.

And the province's Gateway program, particularly the South Fraser Perimeter Road, is expected to come at the cost of more farmland.

"There are hotspots everywhere," Steves said.

Even on Barnston Island – where farm backers scored a rare victory in 2006 over a plan to create an industrial park – the issue may not be settled.

Steves said some interested developers bought land on the island even though its proposed removal from the ALR was rejected.

"Their long-term vision is that land will go," he said. "So that's what we're up against."

One trend, Steves said, is that developers wanting ALR withdrawals increasingly offer local cities either part of the land or big chunks of cash in order to gain backing.

Dave Sands of the ALR Protection and Enhancement Committee predicts more ALR exclusion proposals will come out of Langley, Abbotsford and Chilliwack to feed the growing demand for industrial land in the Fraser Valley.

"We have not yet accepted that farmland has to be forever," said Sands, a former regional director for B.C.'s agriculture ministry.

"It's a pity it's taking tragedies for people to wake up."

Sands is concerned that B.C.'s new Agriculture Plan focuses on tougher measures to preserve prime ALR land and that may threaten lesser lands.

Ultimately, he said, more must be done to stop the land speculation that can make agriculture land developers instant millionaires and their neighbours who keep tilling the soil feel like chumps.

"We have done very little and I see no sign of change," he said. "People are still applying like crazy for land."

Even if land stays in the ALR and can't be subdivided, there is no guarantee it is being used to produce food.

There are growing concerns in parts of the region about the construction of giant houses in the middle of formerly productive farms.

Buyers who don't care about farming can still create a giant country manor estate, and the positioning of the home often hinders any future farm use.

"They sometimes use up an entire 10-acre parcel of class 1 land," said Kim Sutherland, the province's regional agrologist for the eastern Fraser Valley.

"They can't build a house that big in the city, so they use the ALR land," she said. "That's not why we have an ALR. It's not an urban land reserve or an area for gentrification."

Municipalities like Abbotsford and Kent are looking at plugging that gap with a "home plate" bylaw – like one already in force in Delta – to regulate the size and positioning of residential uses on farmland.

Sutherland said the trend toward using ALR land for homes not farms is a "big problem" even though the vast majority of ALR land in the eastern valley is actively farmed.

"It creates the expectation that land for farming is temporary and eventually it will be urbanized," she said.

Sands is worried about more than local demand for big houses.

He notes nothing stops a foreign buyer from coming here, buying up farm land and either sitting on it as an investment or making only part-time use of it as a pastoral holiday home.

"I'm worried about the Olympics," Sands said. "Somebody is going to come in and say to themselves 'I can buy a piece of the Fraser Valley or the Pemberton Valley.'"

Size of the ALR:

Metro Vancouver

- 69,914 hectares

- down 8.9 per cent since 1974

Fraser Valley Regional District

- 71,829 hectares

down 6.5 per cent since 1974

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