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Simmering controversy over ALR as Premier opens UFV Ag Centre in Chilliwack

Premier Christy Clark was in Chilliwack last Friday for the official opening of UFV
Premier Christy Clark was in Chilliwack last Friday for the official opening of UFV's new Agriculture Centre of Excellence.
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson

The future of farming was at the forefront last Friday as politicians, academics, school officials and other supporters glad-handed and exchanged congratulations at the official opening of the University of the Fraser Valley’s (UFV) new Agriculture Centre of Excellence (ACE).

And while both UFV and British Columbia’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) celebrate their 40th year of existence this year, the former was feted last week while the latter is fretted over.

With Chilliwack-Hope MLA Laurie Throness, Chilliwack MLA John Martin and Minister of Advanced Education Amrik Virk by her side, Premier Christy Clark was at ACE for the formal ribbon cutting ceremony and a photo-op tour.

But while the BC Liberals pulled out all the stops to put on a show at UFV in Chilliwack, simmering below the surface was a tension among some in attendance about what the government has just done to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) with Bill 24.

“There is no new farmland to be had.”

That simple, if obvious, statement comes from Dr. Lenore Newman who holds the Canada Research Chair in food security and the environment at UFV.

“About 33 per cent of the Earth’s land area is in rangeland or field crops, and that number won’t really go up much more; there are no new frontiers,” Newman told the Times.

Newman was in attendance at the ACE opening, where speakers, including Clark, focused on the importance of food grown locally, both for sustainability reasons and for economic growth.

The ACE and its 780-square-metre demonstration barn for livestock, swine and poultry and a 600-square-metre polycarbonate greenhouse will go some way towards supporting agriculture in the Fraser Valley and B.C.

“This has been a dream for our community for a long time,” Throness said in a speech.

Virk pointed to the state-of-the-art technology featured at the centre.

“This is not Fraser Valley, this is not Canada, this is the best technology in the world,” he said.

UFV president Mark Evered said that throughout history there have been instances of economies around the world that have collapsed for want of a good food supply.

“This is not a luxury that we are talking about here,” Evered said.

What no one mentioned at the opening of ACE—a centre dedicated to improving agriculture best practices and educating the next generation of farmers—is the government’s recent “improvements” to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). Bill 24 breaks the ALR into two zones: zone 1, which includes Vancouver Island, the Okanagan and the South Coast, including the Fraser Valley; and zone 2, which is made up of the North, the Interior and the Kootenays.

In zone 1, little will change, although the changes also mean the ALC will have to report to government, and new regional boards could mean increased pressure for exclusions from local municipalities and developers, according to Newman.

In zone 2, there will be leeway for non-farm use, to “provide farmers with more flexibility to support their farming operations.”

At the opening of ACE, Clark was asked by the Times how the changes to the ALC will further the local food sustainability model.

“We need to make sure that farmers can stay on their farms and make a living, and increasingly that has become difficult in parts of the province where farmland isn’t nearly as productive as here in the Fraser Valley,” Clark said. “So part of the purpose of those changes is to ensure that farms are sustainable for farmers that are living there now. And second, they maintain that capacity to pass that farm off to their children or to find interested buyers.”

Newman said she thinks there is some validity in the move to give farmers in zone 2 more non-farm use, but some “excellent land” around Kamloops has been included in zone 2.

“[A]nd it seems there would be better ways to allow flexibility without opening up zone 2 to absolutely everything,” she said. “So in some ways I agree with some of the things the Premier is saying, but it isn’t clear this particular legislation will bring about those changes.”

Newman added that in B.C., the general sentiment about farmland ranges from indifference to, in places such as Delta and Richmond, outright hostility. She pointed to the incident last year in Richmond where a piece of farmland in the ALR was found being used as a dumpsite for construction waste.

“There is a lack of respect, even for the best lands in the province,” she said. “Not to go too biblical on you, but we are supposed to be stewards of the Earth.”

Overall, Newman said she agrees with some of the intent of what is planned in zone 2, but she doesn’t see how Bill 24 will help.

And worse, the move to regional panels will only speed up land loss, already a serious problem.

“If they really want to strengthen zone 1, they should freeze or limit exclusions in those areas, and put more money into assistance and research for farmers.”

Worldwide, land is being lost to pollution, poor management, desertification, climate change and urban sprawl.

“B.C. is actually in good shape compared to most places, but only if we maintain our focus on ensuring the land is there a hundred years down the line.”

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