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The EATEN PATH: Why there should be a lock on the ALR in Chilliwack

Chilliwack farm land isn
Chilliwack farm land isn't just good, it's the best in Canada by a factor of more than two, according to Lenore Newman.
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson

As we emerge from the cold, wet winter months here in Chilliwack, it becomes increasingly clear that we live in the breadbasket of British Columbia.

Birds begin flitting about, tree blossoms start to appear and we know that fresh vegetables are not far behind.

With close to 1,000 farms and 67 per cent of the land base committed to agriculture, the City of Chilliwack is a veritable paradise for foodies.

At the same time, the community is on the outskirts of a thriving, booming, growing Metro Vancouver and Lower Mainland. Chilliwack sits on the best farmland in British Columbia, land that is protected by the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), but the threat from residential development growth is real.

The Lower Mainland from Hope to Vancouver is a relative sliver of prime farmland and urban life.

Most of the rest of the province is Crown Land; 94 per cent to be exact.

“Think about that, 94 per cent. It’s like we bought a giant house and we are living in the hall closet,” says Dr. Lenore Newman, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Food Security at the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV).

“We are really spoiled but we’ve got to fight to protect that.”

Outside of the agricultural community in the Fraser Valley, the importance of farmers, farmland and what is produced is taken for granted by most people in the Lower Mainland, according to Newman.

“People don’t realize how important this farmland is,” she said. “This is the best farmland in the country by a factor of about two-and-a-half for return on investment.”

To put that in numbers, Newman said local farmers get about $18,000 an acre for farmgate receipts. The only thing close in the rest of Canada is the Niagara Peninsula at about $8,000.

When she lived in Ottawa, Newman says she used to go into the store and long to be back in Vancouver at Granville Island Market with access to the bounty and quality of produce from the Fraser Valley.

“Quality that, to be honest, I’ve never seen anywhere else in the country except perhaps Quebec City that has the same love of farmland. Almost nowhere in North America do you get this kind of quality at these prices that everyone gets to enjoy.”

The Agricultural Land Reserve marks its 40th anniversary in 2014, and Newman has been asked what the Lower Mainland would look like if, in 1974, it was never created. She figures urban sprawl would stretch from Vancouver to the Sumas Prairie if not for the protection of the ALR.

“If the Agriculture Land Reserve hadn’t have been put in place, we would have lost 80 percent of the agricultural land in our region by now,” she argues.

Zooming in from the big picture, individual municipalities—Chilliwack included—have supported landowners in individual applications over the years that have chipped away at the ALR.

“In most of the regions, we’ve lost eight to 10 per cent over 40 years,” Newman says. “That’s not horrible, but it’s also not sustainable.”

And if you don’t think the pressure on the ALR is that fierce way out here in Chilliwack, take note of just how little developable land there is left anywhere. It’s all basically farmland or hillside. In 30 or 40 years tops, Newman says, to build anything anywhere from Vancouver to Harrison Hot Springs, something will have to be torn down first.

“People have said ‘you are anti-development’ and I’m totally not,” she told the Times during the Field to Fork event at UFV in November. “Farming is an enterprise and I’m very keen on it.

“All I’m saying is if you want to build a bunch of houses, build them on the hills. Build them up in the valley where we can’t grow anything. Leave the best farmland in the whole country for the future, for your children, for your grandchildren.”

Overall, Newman is hopeful for two reasons: people are beginning to see the value in locally grown food, and the value of farmland is increasing worldwide.

“I think, in time, it’ll take care of itself,” she says of pressures on the ALR.

Still, an underlying tension between development and the ALR among some, including many in the governing BC Liberals, needs to be monitored closely. Some have suggested the situation last fall when Minister of Agriculture Pat Pimm pushed to have a 70-hectare piece of land removed from the ALR so a constituent could build a rodeo park was an anomaly. Others think the Pimm case scratches the surface of unspoken desire of some in the BC Liberals to dismantle the ALC and the ALR altogether.

“There is a Libertarian streak in B.C., you know, this idea that ‘it’s my land why can’t I just do what I want with it?’”

Here in Chilliwack, there has been a long-standing tension between politicians and the ALR; a tension that is rarely made overt, but bubbles under the surface.

Entering its fifth decade, the ALR is a well-established land reserve, and Newman suggests it’s time to put a moratorium on land removals of any kind.

Enough is enough.

“Landowners have had 40 years to make a case that their land should be removed. If it’s still in the reserve, then that’s where it should stay.”

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