Farmers suspicious of new two-tiered system for ALR

Changes make it easier for oil industry and other sectors to use farmland

Langley dairy farmer Erin Anderson says urban encroachment on agricultural land is a major issue in the Fraser Valley

British Columbia farmers, ranchers, fruit growers and vineyard owners generated $2.8 billion in 2012, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Agriculture-based food and beverage processing, from cranberry juice processors and wineries to abattoirs, added another $8.2 billion in value-added processing.

Agriculture employs 26,000 people in B.C. and another 31,800 are employed in food and beverage processing.

But farming can hardly compete with the oil and gas sector, which is why some farmers in B.C. are nervous about a new two-tiered Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) that could make it easier for non-farm industries – including those related to oil and gas – to set up on farmland in the Kootenays, the Interior and northern B.C.

One of the richest agricultural regions in B.C. is the Peace River valley. According to the Peace Valley Association, the Peace region will lose 9,897 acres of Class 1,2 and 3 ALR land – the classification for prime farmland – if the Site C dam is approved.

Only 5% of B.C.'s land base is within the ALR, but of that only 1.1% is in the Class 1 to 3 category.

Facing such a large loss of prime farmland, Peace region farmers such as Ken Boon are suspicious of any changes to the ALR that might result in further erosion of the safeguards in place for farmland.

“The changes weren't being implemented to make firmer protection of farmland; it was to weaken protection so people could do development on ALR land,” said Boon, whose family will lose nearly half of its 640-acre farm to flooding, should the Site C dam be built.

In May, Bill 24 was passed, splitting the ALR into two distinct management zones.

Zone 1 is the Okanagan, Vancouver Island and south coast, including the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley. Zone 2 includes the Interior, the Kootenays and northern B.C.

The B.C. government is proposing to have different rules for Zone 2 ALR land. When considering applications for exemptions in Zone 1, the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission's (ALC) principal guidelines must be the preservation of farmland and encouraging farming.

But in Zone 2, the ALC must also consider “economic, social and cultural values” and “regional and community planning objectives.”

In a consultation document, the Ministry of Agriculture asks if industrial activities should be allowed as a permitted use on ALR land in Zone 2 – including breweries, cogeneration plants (associated with greenhouses), medical marijuana grow operations and services related to the oil and gas sector.

“One idea is to expand opportunities for a broader range of land-based non-agricultural businesses, such as certain oil and gas ancillary services,” the document states.

Harold Steves – a Richmond city councillor, farmer and one of the original architects of the ALR – said he believes the B.C. government broke the ALR into two zones because there may be a higher tolerance for loosening ALR land protection in places like the Interior.

“In [the Lower Mainland], there's strong opposition to expanding the non-farm uses,” Steves said. “In fact, there's a lot of people quite angry about the big houses going on the ALR land.

“There's not as much opposition in the Interior. Secondly, in the Interior they seem to have the idea of opening it up to oil and gas exploration. I don't know how it makes any difference because the Oil and Gas Commission overrules the [Agricultural] Land Commission anyway.”

The reason there is such strong opposition to expanding non-farm uses in Zone 1 is that farmers from Richmond to Chilliwack have already seen so much productive farmland redesignated for non-farm uses – from golf courses and highways to wineries and mansions.

“I would say urban encroachment is our biggest issue down here,” said Erin Anderson, who runs Aldor Acres dairy farm in Langley with her husband, Brian.

The Andersons own 40 acres and lease 130 more. They would own more land if they could afford it, but Anderson said farmland in Langley has become too costly: $45,000 to $50,000 per acre. In more densely populated areas like Richmond, roughly half of which is in the ALR, farmland can be as a high as $200,000 to $300,000 per acre.

Perhaps not surprisingly, rural lanes in Richmond now have more mansions than barns, and Langley has likewise seen a proliferation of 10- and 15-acre parcels of farmland turned into estates with large mansions but little, if any, farming.

Anderson would like to see regulations that would forbid the sale of ALR land if the owner does not have a plan to use it for agriculture.

“We need that land, and ultimately it's being allowed to be purchased by people who are never going to farm it,” she said.

Across the lake from the village of Burton on Arrow Lake in the Kootenays is 340 acres of beautiful waterfront property that is locked within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

It has been logged but never farmed, and it probably never will be, said Lindsay Moir, president of Arrow Lakes Developments Ltd., which is selling shares in the property, called Fortunes Landing.

“It will never be farmed, for several reasons,” Moir said. “One is it's too far from markets; secondly the soil is too poor.”

Arrow Lakes acquired the property five years ago from a mortgage investment corporation that had foreclosed on the previous owner, who had logged the land.

Moir is now selling shares in the property based on a shared-interest model, in which the land will be collectively owned. The shareholders are allowed to park RVs at Fortunes Landing but can't build permanent structures.

The owners may one day vote to apply to have the land removed for the ALR and develop it as recreational property. But as Moir has learned, that is a costly thing to do in B.C., so the owners may simply decide to keep the property as a kind of collectively owned private RV park, while enjoying a low farm tax rate.

“The cost of developing waterfront property in the Interior of B.C. is so high that we're happy to be in the ALR,” Moir said.

“Once every 10 years we'll have the discussion, but I think the kind of people that will buy in there never want to be in a development.”

Over the years, speculators have been successful in having farmland removed from the ALR by simply sitting on it and not farming it, and then arguing – sometimes successfully – that it should come out of the ALR because it has never been farmed.

But just because land has never been farmed doesn't mean it can't be, said Harold Steves, a farmer and one of the original architects of the ALR.

“I know we get that argument that it's never been farmed,” Steves said. “It's totally irrelevant whether it's ever been farmed.”

Arrow Lakes Developments has had some success getting land out of the ALR. In 2009, it succeeded in having 55 acres removed from the ALR and is now selling lots for the Galena Shores development.

“We spent $10.5 million on that, and we're all going to lose money,” Moir said. “It was a very painful economic lesson.

“Developing and marketing land in the Interior of B.C. is so cost-prohibitive now that you cannot make a buck.”