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Delta farmers challenge notion of idle farmland

Ladner farmer Pete Guichon, pictured here on one of his fields, says farmers have gobbled up any farmland they can find to lease. - File photo
Ladner farmer Pete Guichon, pictured here on one of his fields, says farmers have gobbled up any farmland they can find to lease.
— image credit: File photo

The Corporation of Delta is looking into idle farms that have gone to fallow either because of foreign ownership or inactive farming, but local Delta farmers say the issue may be overblown.

"We can't get our hands on enough land around here," said Peter Guichon, whose family operation has exhausted every piece of farmable land it can find in Ladner.

A recent survey by Metro Vancouver found that up to 28 per cent of regional land deemed suitable is not being farmed, but that has Guichon skeptical. He said the ministry of agriculture came out with a similar report on Delta's farming recently and half the fields identified as fallow are not, including five fields of his own.

Guichon said the ministry may be mixing up farms in the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust Grassland Set-aside stewardship program, which deliberately lets fields go to fallow for up to four years, with fields that are actually in disuse.

"There's probably some parts of the Lower Mainland that are like that but I sure don't know any around here, otherwise I'd be hunting them down and trying to get a lease on them," he said.

Those fallow farms that do exist are generally small plots of land, hobby farms and ranches, that wouldn't be suitable for commercial farming operations anyway, said Robert Butler of the Delta Farmers' Institute.

He isn't sure how many fallow fields are owned by foreign interests, but said he's seen active farming increase as farmers gobble up any leased land they can.

"There are some things which are changing but it's slow to happen, and not all of those offshore interests are interested in farming of any kind," he said. "They just simply want to hold on to the land hoping [somebody] taps them on the shoulder and says we want to buy it."

Although municipalities can charge higher tax rates for idle farms, Butler said if the land is being held by speculators it's just seen as a cost of business. There are some municipalities in the Lower Mainland that want to seek provincial approval from the B.C. Assessment Authority to crack down on farmland engaging in non-farming activities or simply allowing the farm go to fallow.

But Butler said the latter could be problematic because the landowner could simply offer a lease at a price farmers can't afford.

"They can always say, well, we tried," he said. "And how do you control that kind of stuff without having the state buy the land and lease it back?"

East Delta farmer and Coun. Ian Paton said foreign owners at one time invested their money through real estate brokers in B.C. because farmland was so cheap. But since the Agricultural Land Reserve came along in 1973 many of those investors have since cashed out.

"There was way more of that going on in the '50s and the '60s," he said. "I mean, you wouldn't believe how many farms, even out where I live."

Those foreign buyers who are gobbling up land in Delta today are the ones who are farming it. Paton said businessmen from India are finding success in blueberry farming. There are 53 hectares of blueberries being put into production in East Delta between 72nd Street and 80th Street.

"The bona fide farmers out there are always looking for more land and that's a big problem," he said. "It's frustrating if a guy's got a 40 acre farm and he's just letting it grow in thistles and blackberries, that's what we don't want to see."

Mayor Lois Jackson said the philosophy behind the Agricultural Land Reserve when it was implemented was in concert with protecting farmland from speculators and foreign investors. Delta has the largest average parcel sizes of any Lower Mainland community in the Agricultural Land Reserve, according to provincial reports.

"We protect our good farmland out here and we don't cover it with Walmarts and Canadian Tire stores," she said.

For those overseas property owners who are still sitting on a piece of land without leasing it for farming or its intended purpose, Jackson said there should be a higher tax rate.

"If they're just going to sit there and speculate on the property then they're going to have to pay speculator's taxes I guess."

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