Federal, city laws clash over weed farms

Food security concerns over cannabis on ALR misguided: B.C. farmer

Susan Chapelle has been lobbying municipalities to allow micro-grows on ALR land, without much success  | Rob Kruyt

About a decade ago, while discussing proposed measures to increase the protection of farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), Richmond farmer and W&A Farms principal Bill Zylmans said there’s not much point in protecting farmland if there is no protection for the farmer.

He then quipped that about the only crop that would allow a farmer in B.C. to make a good profit was marijuana.

He was joking. But a decade later, Susan Chapelle, a former Squamish city councillor now working for Pasha Brands Ltd., is lobbying municipalities to allow farmers to do just that – grow pot.

Many already are, in fact, and have been for years, Chapelle said. These “heritage,” “prohibition-era” growers have supplemented their farm incomes with small micro-grow operations that supplied the grey market.

“Basically you can roll around the Lower Mainland and anywhere with a cedar hedge blocking the view of a greenhouse is probably growing cannabis,” Chapelle said.

Ironically, now that cannabis is legal for recreational use in Canada, those same farmers that have grown marijuana for the grey market in the Lower Mainland are finding it hard, if not impossible, to become legitimate – not because of federal or provincial laws, but because of municipal land-use restrictions.

The provincial government recognizes marijuana as a legitimate agricultural crop that can be grown on ALR land if it’s grown outdoors, grown indoors with a soil base or in a pre-existing greenhouse that was built before July 2018.

Municipalities, however, have the legal authority to restrict some types of growing, and several in the Lower Mainland – Abbotsford, Richmond and Delta – don’t want to see cannabis production of any kind on ALR land.

Abbotsford grandfathered a number of growers but passed a new bylaw that essentially bans the kind of micro-grow operation that Chapelle had hoped to see legitimized.

In Richmond, city council has given first reading to a bylaw that would restrict micro-grows on ALR land. In fact, Richmond is opposed to cannabis sales or production of any kind, even on industrial land. 

“They’re pretty clear, historically, that cannabis is not on the green-light scenario for council,” said Clay Adams, director of communications for the City of Richmond.

Delta Coun. Lois Jackson said cannabis grows like a “weed,” can be grown virtually anywhere and therefore doesn’t need to be grown on ALR land.

“My preference would be [that cannabis grow] in an industrial area,” she said. “That’s what we’ve done here. They don’t have to be on the farmland. They really don’t.”

Food security is a concern

Communities such as Richmond, Delta and Abbotsford are concerned about food security. Elected officials there don’t want farmland converted to growing pot from growing food.

That is a legitimate concern in Delta, where Village Farms International (TSX:VFF) in partnership with Pure Sunfarms, converted 1.1 million square feet of greenhouse operations to cannabis from vegetable production.

But what Chapelle is lobbying for isn’t the wholesale replacement of hothouse tomatoes or cornfields with acres of pot.

She wants farmers, especially “heritage growers,” to be able to have one small, micro-grow facility about the size of a city lot, or 6,000 square feet, to supplement their farm income.

“I’m totally against planting the whole field with marijuana,” Chapelle said. “We need to preserve farmland for food security.”

With the exception of greenhouses, most crops in B.C. have a limited growing season, producing a single crop each year, whereas cannabis grown in a small micro-grow can produce buds year-round. That is why cranberry farmers in Richmond are interested in micro-grows, Chapelle said.

“Since their crop is only a few months a year, they want something that grows all year round,” she said. “They’re not interested in covering their cranberry crops. They’re interested in having supplemental income.”

She said allowing farmers to have micro-grow operations would provide them with a needed income supplement and would provide a legitimate source of cannabis for sellers, such as Pasha Brands, which intends to sell craft cannabis.

A micro-grow – basically a hydroponics operation – isn’t cheap. They cost $1.5 million to $2.5 million. But they can earn a farmer $1.8 million to $2.3 million per year, Chapelle said.

What local politicians don’t seem to get, according to Zylmans, is that protecting ALR land does nothing to promote food security if the farmer can’t make a living off the land.

“It’s all fine and dandy to save all this goddamned land,” he said. “But you know what? If we don’t have anybody to farm it, what are we going to do with it?”

Because his farmland is adjacent to residential areas in Richmond, Zylmans doubts he would ever invest in a micro-grow operation. But he sees no reason why municipal politicians should prevent other farmers from doing so.

“Am I an avid supporter of marijuana?” he asked. “No. But I am a pro-agriculturalist. If a farmer can grow something and can finally make a living and can bring more people to the land and pay the bills, then I’m saying I’m in – all in.”

B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth admitted the question of using ALR land for marijuana production is a tricky one.

“The feds have said, cannabis is an agricultural product,” he said. “It is eligible, for example, for crop insurance. So you’ve got this conflict between what local governments want and at the same time you have a product that is an agricultural product and is recognized by the feds as an agricultural product.”

He suggests the solution might be to see cannabis grown outside of the Lower Mainland on farmland that may or may not be in the ALR.

“Once you get outside the Lower Mainland, in the Kootenays for example, there is lots of ALR land, and there’s lots of cannabis production,” Farnworth said. “It doesn’t have to be on ALR land.”

That doesn’t help heritage growers in the Lower Mainland. If they can’t get permits to continue their operations, they will simply stay underground, said Chapelle.

“They’re going to carry on in the grey market, like 70% of them already do,” she said. “They’re going to be illegally supplying the market, and Abbotsford will be spending their resources on bylaw enforcement for grey growers, instead of earning cash off licensed micro-grow and helping their farmers move into a legal market.”