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Deconstructing Dinner

Kootenay Co-op Radio CJLY

Nelson, B.C. Canada

 

June 8, 2006

 

Title: Is There a Table Reserved for BC Farms? - The Agricultural Land Reserve

 

Producer/Host: Jon Steinman

Transcript: David Taub Bancroft

 

JON STEINMAN: And welcome to Deconstructing Dinner, a syndicated weekly program produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia. I'm your host Jon Steinman. Each week on Deconstructing Dinner, we discuss how the food choices we make impact ourselves, our community, and our planet. Deconstructing Dinner airs on radio stations across the province and is also available as a podcast feed for those wishing to deconstruct dinner on the run.

 

Moving along to the topic of today's broadcast, this topic is incredibly complex. And what makes it so complex is that it involves what could arguably be one of the most important issues facing British Columbians today, but more importantly, those in the future. And I am speaking of the province's Agricultural Land Reserve or ALR. Set up in 1973 by the then-BC premier Dave Barrett, the Agricultural Land Reserve was created to both protect agricultural land and to encourage farming on that land. While at face value the ALR may not seem to be such a complex idea, it becomes incredibly complex when the land that is being preserved is worth far more than the food being grown or raised on that land.

 

The topic of the Agricultural Land Reserve will be one to revisit periodically, as it truly represents the foundation of much of the food that is grown and produced here in this province. But it also represents the food foundation for future generations. On today's broadcast, we will learn more about what the ALR is, for those who are perhaps unaware, and we will begin to address the all-important question of how can agricultural land be preserved when local and regional agriculture as a whole is not receiving adequate support from both consumers and government alike.

 

And to discuss this, we will be hearing from Ann Rowan, the Sustainability Program Director of the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation. We will hear from Erik Karlsen, the chair of the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission. And courtesy of Deconstructing Dinner's Victoria correspondent Andrea Langlois, we will have the opportunity to hear from Robin Tunnicliffe of Feisty Field Organic Farm in Victoria and also a co-owner of Saanich Organics, and we will also hear from Heather Stretch of Northbrook farm in Central Saanich north of Victoria, who is also a co-owner of Saanich Organics.

 

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There's certainly never a more ideal time than another to discuss the Agricultural Land Reserve here in British Columbia, as the importance of preserving agricultural land is both an issue facing the current population and the future population of the province. But encouraging today's broadcast of Deconstructing Dinner was a recent report released by the David Suzuki Foundation entitled Forever Farmland, authored by Charles Campbell, which primarily indicates how in recent years farmland that is located along the edge of towns and cities in BC has fallen prey to regional development. As the report points out, between 2001 and 2006, thousands of hectares from Vancouver Island all the way to the East Kootenay region have been eliminated from the Agricultural Land Reserve, the ALR.

 

Now while the total land within the reserve has not decreased, the pressure to remove land from the ALR is greatest near the major population centres where the most productive farmland happens to be located. So while Agricultural Minister Pat Bell often announces how the land protected within the ALR is at the highest level it has ever been, the Forever Farmland report indicates that 90% of the land added to the ALR since its inception has been in the north, while 72% of the land lost has been in the more fertile southern part of the province where the season to grow food is also significantly longer.

 

And then the real question of sustainability arises. While land within the ALR is moved further north, the distance from which British Columbians will be relying on food to travel only increases. Combine the rising price of gasoline with the decreasing global supply of oil, the proximity of agricultural land to the major population centers within the province so too becomes an issue.

 

And to elaborate on the Forever Farmland report, I spoke over the phone with Ann Rowan, the Sustainability Director of the David Suzuki Foundation. The Foundation has functioned since 1990, and has worked to find ways for society to live in balance with the natural world. As I began my conversation with Ann Rowan, she first explains what the Agricultural Land Reserve is, and why it was first established.

 

ANN ROWAN: The Agricultural Land Reserve was established in British Columbia about 30 years ago. It was established because at that point, there was great concern that some of the best agricultural land in the province was disappearing - disappearing primarily from encroachment of urban areas, but also new industrial development, other land use issues. And at that point, people were becoming quite concerned that what would be lost is some of the best agricultural land. British Columbia is like most places in Canada; the best agricultural land is right along the border, as well as the big urban centres - the urban centre primarily of Vancouver, but also Vancouver Island, Victoria. And then the other big tract of really productive land is in the Okanagan, and we know that those communities are some of the fasting growing in all of Canada. So the Agricultural Land Reserve was established primarily to preserve that agricultural land, so that long into the future, British Columbians would be able to enjoy the fruits - quite literally - and other agricultural produce.

 

JON STEINMAN: While Deconstructing Dinner is designed to better understand where our food is coming from, Ann Rowan further illustrates the importance of the Agricultural Land Reserve by addressing the very mission of this radio program.

 

ANN ROWAN: One of the things that we know is important about understanding food is knowing where it comes from. So there's a vast opportunity for kids to learn about agriculture by preserving the agricultural land near urban centres.

 

We tend to underestimate the spinoff - the economic spinoff - from agriculture. Farms tend to be labour-intensive. There are people who spend a great deal of time producing food. But what we know is that in Vancouver, we've got lots of green grocers that actually sell a great deal of produce from local farms, as well as there's home systems in British Columbia that primarily rely on fruits coming from the Agricultural Land Reserve. And I would say there's also some interesting trends in the secondary markets in terms of restaurants that focus on local cuisine. And again, what they're doing is they're bringing in meats and fruits and eggs and all sorts of agricultural products in from the ALR. And we've got also just a budding, if you will, agri-tourism industry where people can actually go out and spend the weekend either working on the farm or actually just being around green countryside.

 

JON STEINMAN: As the Forever Farmland report took shape, the David Suzuki Foundation began to recognize some key problems in the way agricultural land in this province was being preserved.

 

ANN ROWAN: One of the issues for the David Suzuki Foundation, when you look at sustainability again, is: how sustainable are our food systems? What we know is that increasing the - it is a global market for food - one of the impacts of that is what we're doing is trucking and flying food from all corners of the world and increasing greenhouse gas emissions, pushing agricultural land to its limit in many places - you know that soil erosion and destruction is a problem. The advantage of the ALR is it does ensure that within British Columbia, we've got food production near the biggest markets in British Columbia. So anything that can help the production of local products for local populations, there's big ecological benefit.

 

JON STEINMAN: Many of the reasons for the controversy surrounding recent removals of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve are often accused as being a result from the restructuring of the Agricultural Land Commission to now include six regional panels. And Ann Rowan explains what the Commission is, and how its structure is not conducive to its mission.

 

ANN ROWAN: The Agricultural Land Commission was established when the ALR was established. It's actually the decision making body for managing the ALR. It also has additional responsibilities in terms of encouraging agricultural production in British Columbia. That is, it's not enough to protect the land; you also have to encourage and support the farmers that are working the land. So when the ALR was established, it was 30 years ago, and what happened, they were taking aerial photographs and drawing lines where the agricultural boundaries were going to be - kind of, you know, big felt markers on photographs; you can make some mistakes - and there was odd areas that shouldn't have been included that were included in the ALR and vice versa.

 

So the Agricultural Land Commission has the responsibility of deciding what land should be excluded from the ALR and what land needs to be brought into the ALR. Now, the history of the Agricultural Land Commission was that it was basically anywhere between five to seven members of the Commission were supposed to be take into account provincial interests in making decisions about what land would be included and what land would be excluded from the ALR. The practice as it is today is that there's actually five regional boards now that make decisions about exclusions and inclusions into the ALR. There are three-member panels - a very small number of people making decisions - and because they're from the region, certainly I think more susceptible to local interests in terms of what in the mandate of the Agricultural Land Commission is called "community needs."

 

JON STEINMAN: This term "community need" or "community interest" is ultimately the deciding factor when choosing to either remove land from the ALR or not, and as will be discussed later on in the program by Erik Karlsen of the Agricultural Land Commission, the need to better define this term will alleviate much of the difficulties that have arisen in managing the ALR. But Ann Rowan first explains this term and how many communities have begun to use this term as an invitation to treat the ALR as simply a Land Bank.

 

ANN ROWAN: The community needs are supposed to be that, well, maybe some land should be taken out because community needs are so great. Our concern is that what community needs are being defined as are very short-term economic interests. A growing municipality has decided, "Well, we need more land for new residential development, or we need more land for could be a community centre, we need more land for industrial development." And our concern is that too many local municipalities see the ALR as basically a land bank. What it's done is it's protected this land, and now they're wanting to make withdrawals from that bank.

 

JON STEINMAN: While community need or community interest is seen as justification for removing land from the ALR, in a November 2004 news article, retired Ministry of Agriculture agronomist Dave Sands criticised the Commission for even considering exclusions of top grade farmland from the ALR. Sands was quoted in the article by stating that the Agricultural Land Commission's mandate is to protect farmland for present and future generations, but having an application process sends a message that the ALR is there for development.

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We are currently listening to clips from my conversation with Ann Rowan, the Sustainability Program Director of the David Suzuki Foundation. In further illustrating the nature of the Forever Farmland report, Ann further expands on the way many municipalities treat the Agricultural Land Reserve, and how many of these municipalities do not acknowledge land in the ALR as being just that.

ANN ROWAN: Now that the Agricultural Land Reserve has been in existence for 30 years, what we believe is that local councils, local or regional planning boards, certainly should have been able to adapt now to the idea that this land exists as agricultural land and start making their plans around it, not just seeing it as a potential source of new land for regional plans. That, in fact, is written into the legislation, that the Agricultural Land Commission is supposed to work with local councils and regional planning boards to incorporate both the Agricultural Land Reserve and also the idea that agriculture has a role in local economies, has a role in development, that has been sorely missing.

 

When you look at regional plans for most of the regional boards in British Columbia, they talk about urban growth in general, they talk about industrial development, they talk about infrastructure needs, they talk about how do you encourage a whole range of amenities like theatres and community centres and things like that. But what they're missing is identifying the role of agriculture. So one of the things that we believe would be very important is that regional boards begin to see the economic, the social, values of having agricultural land and having agriculture as part of their base, their economic base.

 

JON STEINMAN: While to many of us, it may come as a shock that municipal governments in this province treat agricultural land with such disregard, but it is nevertheless understandable when our society as a whole has lost our close connection to agriculture itself. The reasons for this loss are discussed more or less every week on this program, with one of the prime culprits being our increasing affection for and dependence on food that is grown and produced far away from here. In the case of sustainability, a grocery store here in British Columbia filled with fruits and vegetables from California and Mexico does not indicate a society that is sustainable.

 

And this is where the complexity of the Agricultural Land Reserve seems to begin. How can you tell a community to protect agricultural land when most of our food is not even being grown or produced on the land, and that which is does not provide much financial return? Ann Rowan responds to this concern, and whether this lack of support for farming in general creates a lack of understanding of how important agricultural land is.

 

ANN ROWAN: The way we feel you begin to address a question like that is you've got to protect the land first. That's why it is really important that first there is an Agricultural Land Reserve. Once the land is used industrially or for new urban development or paved over for roads, you never can reclaim it, or reclaim it easily, for agricultural land again. So the importance of the ALR is that it's, in a sense, the necessary and required first step in providing a sustainable and long-term base to agriculture.

 

But yes, the next step is that you have to ensure that the farmers who are working the land are actually supported. What we know is a huge problem in British Columbia is the cost of agricultural land. Within the ALR, the prices are much lower than they would be if it was subject to the competitive market - the value of the land would go up significantly. But still, when you're competing with low-price imports, it makes it very difficult. So we believe that that's something that if we're going to maintain local production, it's critically important that the province begin to address how do you support farmers. And I'm not suggesting that it needs to be price supports. But how do you begin to provide the necessary tools for farmers to actually make a go of it?

 

JON STEINMAN: If you are just tuning in, this is Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly broadcast that deconstructs our food, and exposes the impacts our food choices have. Deconstructing Dinner is produced at Kootenay Co-op Radio in Nelson, British Columbia.

 

On today's broadcast we are taking a look into British Columbia's Agricultural Land Reserve or ALR. The feature of the broadcast is the David Suzuki Foundation's recently released report entitled Forever Farmland, which addresses, among others, concerns over the methods by which land is removed from the reserve. But what will be focused on in more depth later on in the program is that the removal of agricultural land goes hand in hand with the ways in which cities are planned. Location within the Forever Farmland report is a reference to another report published in 1999 that suggests that "all of the growth in the Lower Mainland for the next 25 years can be accommodated within the already urbanized portion of the region without making suburbs any denser than the city of Vancouver is today." As Ann Rowan indicates, the Agricultural Land Reserves helps limit urban sprawl and only encourages what can be called Smart Growth.

 

ANN ROWAN: The primary objective of the Agricultural Land Reserve is to protect agricultural land. A side benefit of that is that it sets off zones - if you will, "green zones" - that are not to be developed. The side benefit is it actually helps to reduce suburban sprawl.

 

Now if you respect the boundaries of the Agricultural Land Reserve, municipalities will begin to - and have begun to do - is develop more compact development. It's looking at, okay, rather than spreading, how do we in-fill the areas that have already been developed? How do we use what would have been called "brown lands" - where industry is actually moved away - how do you reclaim and reuse that area? And in a lot of residential development, there's a lot of space that can be used as the in-fill, where it can be either you grow up, build up, in terms of the development, or you can actually in-fill in terms of what are called "carriage houses," or houses behind houses, if you want to maintain a kind of residential look to a neighbourhood.

 

Again, if you look at what's happened in Vancouver - and Vancouver's been recognized as a very innovative urban area in the kinds of development. There's the intense downtown kind of development with the tall towers. There's the what's called False Creek area where you've got tiered low-rise residential development. And then in places like Kitsilano and the Dunbar neighbourhood, there's a lot more what you call in-fill, where the communities still have the feel of a regular residential community, but with the approval of suites - basement suites - and other in-fill opportunities.

 

JON STEINMAN: As I continued my conversation with Ann Rowan, she answered my question of whether or not the reason communities are constantly looking to the Agricultural Land Reserve on which to grow is because communities are simply not planning how to use land most efficiently.

 

ANN ROWAN: Yes, I think so. I think the orientation - and we see this in terms of transportation policies, we see it again in terms of land-use policies - the concept of a growing urban area is that it grows geographically. What we know, to make urban areas more sustainable is we need to make urban areas more compact. It's only more compact development that will make urban transit systems efficient and affordable. When you get sparsely populated neighbourhoods sprawling across the landscape, it's almost impossible - it is impossible - to build a transit system that works. So what happens is it's a constant game of sprawl, right? Transit doesn't work, so then you have to build roads to move people in and out. We see this all the time. The thing is building more roads makes it that much more attractive to move out of the city again to enhance that kind of sprawl. And it's a constant game of trying to catch up.

 

JON STEINMAN: At this moment during my conversation with Ann Rowan, I could not help but connect her comments to the vision our current federal government has for this country. And I will explain this connection. First off, as Ann Rowan just mentioned, "When you get sparsely populated neighbourhoods sprawling across the landscape, it is impossible to get a transit system that works."

 

Now looking back to the January election, Stephen Harper's Conservative government put transit issues near the top of its priorities. Located on the Conservative Party website was a link that remains today to a page titled "Key Issues," and from that page is a list of options which, among others, includes one titled "Stand Up for Our Communities." Located at the top of that page is an overarching sentence highlighted in red, and I want to read to you that very sentence. And it reads, "Let's build better roads and transit and keep our environment clean." Now putting aside the confusion that may arise when the party running our country associates building roads with keeping our environment clean, here nevertheless presents a conflict of protecting agriculture when building roads and better transit is at the forefront of the political agenda of our federal government.

 

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As the Forever Farmland report further indicates, when municipalities spread outward, they often fail to recover the costs of infrastructure requirements, while agricultural land use is often a net benefit to a municipal balance sheet. As Ann Rowan explains, infrastructure already exists within municipalities, and growth should therefore be focused inwards.

 

ANN ROWAN: One of the things that that does is it really spreads the resources of municipalities then, because municipalities never reclaim as much in - they charge developers new fees to build out because they have to build sewage systems, garbage collection, police protection. All those kind of things need to cover any new areas in the city. But municipalities never recover the full cost of extending that infrastructure through development fees. So what happens is municipalities constantly are thinking, "Well, we're going to have to spend in order to capture new revenues in terms of property taxes, new revenues in terms of development fees." If you begin to instead of looking outward and look inward, the costs of new infrastructure are significantly reduced, because you're just increasing the volume in an area already serviced.

 

JON STEINMAN: While urban sprawl encroaches onto agricultural land, Ann Rowan further emphasizes how the trend to grow cities outwards has negative social impacts.

 

ANN ROWAN: By building more compact developments, you'll make transit systems more efficient and affordable, reduce the reliance on automobiles. But there's also a social benefit. Living in a car - as a commuter often does for an hour, two hours, maybe even four hours a day - is an isolating event. So it has not only a sociological implication, but also physiological implications. You know that the health of people who live in communities where they can walk or ride bikes, their health is much better. The incidence of heart attacks, the incidence of obesity, tends to drop. People who live in walkable communities are about six pounds lighter than people who live in suburban communities where they would have to rely on automobiles to get around.

 

JON STEINMAN: In wrapping up my conversation with Ann Rowan, she ended with these remarks.

 

ANN ROWAN: I think there's been an underestimation of the value of protecting local production - local agricultural production. We need 'em. The allure of the benefits of mining and forestry and high-tech technology, they're more exciting in many ways, or they appear to be more exciting, more important. But food, agricultural production, is really quite fundamental. We know that it is the basis for development from the beginning of time. And we ignore that at our peril. People that have read Ronald Wright's book, The Short History of Development [sic], the thing that you come away with is that societies, economies, countries, that have ignore the value of agriculture have done it at their peril.

 

JON STEINMAN: And that was Ann Rowan, the Sustainability Program Director of the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation. You can find out more about the foundation and the Forever Farmland report by visiting their website at davidsuzuki.org. There will also be more information on the Deconstructing Dinner website at cjly.net/deconstructingdinner where this broadcast will also be archived.

 

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And you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, where on today's show we are taking a closer look at the province's Agricultural Land Reserve. While the ALR is one of the leading agricultural conservation initiatives around the world, there has been much controversy surrounding the reserve throughout recent years, as many tracts of land have been removed from the ALR to the dismay of local residents and British Columbians as a whole. Corruption has accompanied a number of these cases and has left a tarnished reputation for the bureau overlooking the Land Reserve, and that is the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission or ALC.

 

Set up by the Province to oversee the operation of the ALR, the mission of the ALC has been to protect agricultural land from other forms of development, to encourage farming, and work with other governments to fulfil those objectives. Following the ALR's creation in 1973, the Commission had operated on a province-wide structure with only two or three regional panels. In the past four to five years, however, the commission has seen the number of regional panels increased to six, so that more specific regional and community needs could be addressed. And as mentioned earlier on the show, this is where much of the controversy arises where the balance between the commission's mandate to protect provincial interests is weighed against their mandate to address community interests.

 

To better explain these concerns, I spoke with the chair of the commission, Erik Karlsen. Erik joined the ALC a little over a year ago, and had previously worked for the provincial government for 29 years. As Erik explained to me, when the Commission receives an application to remove land from the ALR, the application enters into a series of events which ultimately aim to determine whether the land should be removed or not. And Erik explained the way in which the commission balances provincial interests with community needs when making these decisions.

 

ERIK KARLSEN: Okay, well, let me just start with provincial interest. The mere fact that we have an Agricultural Land Reserve, and have had since the early '70s, is that the protection of agriculturally capable land is a provincial interest. So that is virtually a given. We start from the perspective of "The Agricultural Land Reserve is a provincial interest." So the next step then is your relationship to community need. And in our legislation, the term used there is "community issues." And it's defined in terms of potential disputes between the protection of the Agricultural Land Reserve and the more localized interests.

 

And so a typical topic in a community interest of community issue area is the local fire hall, might be an example, sewer and water infrastructure, local roads. And so those are defined as community issues in a way, and in that context, anything that is deemed a community issue could be subject to a need for discussion and resolution with the local government.

 

Also included in that list of community issues are any matters related to an official community plan or a regional growth strategy. And if one was to delve into that, those very detailed documents that relate to anything that a community or a regional district might be pursuing relative to its growth in the decades ahead, years and decades ahead. So "community interest" is very broad, and it's often technical assessment, and a matter of a judgement call.

 

JON STEINMAN: While much concern has been raised over the rate at which prime agricultural land is being removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve, Erik points to the way in which the reserve was first structured, and he describes how the ALC works with communities to accommodate needs for population growth.

 

ERIK KARLSEN: When the Agricultural Land Commission was set up in the '70s - and in the mid-'70s particularly - there was an opportunity give to communities to project their growth and their land-use needs for community development for about five years, give a five-year protection. And then after that, the Commission began to work with communities to develop the plans, community plans, which would contain urban growth and which would also support agriculture as part of that. However, even way back in the '70s, not everybody could predict - including the local governments, with their best efforts - how much land they would need to accommodate growth in a reasonable way. In other words, in a contained way. But not everything can be contained within a municipality land-use plan way back in the '70s. And so it's been a tradition and a practice of the Land Commission, since its inception basically, to work with local governments to meet the legitimate needs of accommodating the population growth - and containing it. Not everything can fit within the boundaries established by the ALR way back in the '70s. And so we have a very detailed process to examine that. I think that a lot of the people who are concerned about some of the decisions that get made by the ALC are probably not as familiar with this background that I'm laying out.

 

JON STEINMAN: Erik further responds to these concerns over the removal of prime agricultural land from the Lower Mainland and southern Vancouver Island.

 

ERIK KARLSEN: The reality is the population is growing in these regions you just mentioned. And so those pressures are greatest there. They also - particularly in the lower Fraser Valley and the Okanagan - happen to have some of the most productive lands for a variety of agricultural crops, particularly in the Fraser Valley, upper Fraser Valley. And so those pressures are great, and so we work with the communities and our own staff, and with the Ministry of Agriculture, to define ways of dealing with these issues. And so some productive land does come out on balance, but other land is retained.

 

And just one thing I just wanted to add in here. If one looks at the individual file - say, for instance, on Vancouver Island in some fairly high public profile applications in terms of public interest - those lands are in the Agricultural Land Reserve, but not necessarily suitable for agriculture. In other words, when the Agricultural Land Reserve was set up in the early '70s, this was done not with onsite visits, but through a fairly general level of aerial photography and land suitability maps. And so when excess population growth occurs - communities do their planning and development scenarios to the future - those lands come before us, and we go on the ground as commissioners, and through this technical review process I mentioned to you at the outset, and we look at it. And we find that actually land that's in the Reserve is not really suitable for farming. The land that is kept in is suitable for farming.

 

So the point I'm making is one has to get down onto the ground. It's easy enough for people such as the David Suzuki Foundation or others to take a look at kind of a flyover situation and look at the basic statistics. But when you get down into the files and you look at some of these, you'll find pretty good reasons as to why those exclusions have been made, and the fact that the suitable land has been retained.

 

JON STEINMAN: And you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner where we are currently hearing clips from my conversation with Erik Karlsen, the chair of the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission.

 

There have been a number of recent removals of land from the ALR that have sparked much controversy. One of these removals was recently discussed in an article published on the Tyee, a Vancouver-based online news resource. The article was authored by Charles Campbell, who is also the author of the Forever Farmland Report referred to earlier. Campbell highlighted the June 2005 removal of 267 hectares of land from the Windemere Valley in the East Kootenays. Cattle ranchers who use this land for their animals to graze are becoming infuriated over the steady loss of land on which to operate their businesses. In January of 2006, the municipality of Hope approved an application to remove the community's oldest and largest working farm from the reserve. In yet another case, almost 200 hectares of land was approved for removal in Abbotsford to accommodate an industrial park.

 

Now while Erik indicates that there are tracts of land within the ALR that were included back in the 70s using an inefficient method of drawing lines on aerial photographs, the Commission almost always sends people to the sites themselves to determine whether the land is suitable for farming or not. In the Abbotsford case, the land was already being used for agriculture. However, Agricultural Minister Pat Bell announced in a letter dated August 2005 that - and I quote - "It's simply not true that the recent Abbotsford decision removed prime, operating farmland." And he continues: "In fact, only a very small portion of the land is under production, as is clearly evident by the aerial photos" - end quote. Now Minister Pat Bell seems to prefer the aerial photo method dispelled just earlier. But while Bell acknowledges that some of the land is not currently being used for agriculture, he fails to address whether it could be used in the future, which, as Erik Karlsen states, is the primary goal of the Commission - to ensure agricultural land is protected for future generations.

 

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One of the key questions posed in the David Suzuki Foundation's Forever Farmland report is the manner in which applications to remove land from the ALR are considered cumulatively as opposed to just individually. As Ann Rowan explained earlier on the show, the removal of small tracts of land all over the province can be seen as death to the ALR by a thousand cuts. And Erik Karlsen of the Commission responds to this concern.

 

ERIK KARLSEN: We look at cumulative effect for sure. But at the same time, our job is done on an application-by-application basis, and I think that as an administrative tribunal, that is our job - to look at the individual applications. What we also do - because of the encouraged farming, working with the local governance mandate - is that we're trying to minimize the cumulative effect, if you will, up front, by having local governments prepare plans that seek in the very beginning to densify their existing developed area and to contain urban growth within those developed areas to the absolute greatest extent possible. We're not always as successful in doing that, and sometimes we have to deal with some very hard choices regarding lands that are in the ALR now. That is basically how we do it. It's not quite as simple as I would like it to be for instance - or any of us would like it to be - to be able to say, "this is it, this is the boundary," because each application has to be judged on its own merits.

 

JON STEINMAN: Removing land from the ALR is often justified when it is deemed that no alternatives exist, and while "no alternatives" presents a contentious justification, I asked Erik how this term "no alternatives" is defined and determined.

 

ERIK KARLSEN: The way in which this is approached is - and this is something we're working on. We were actually working on it before the David Suzuki Foundation report was written, so I'm going to just focus in on where we're going with this right now. What we've found in more recent years - because of the population pressure, and because not all communities or regional growth strategy planning initiatives have captured the dual goals, if you will, of containing urban growth and protecting the Agricultural Land Reserve and encouraging farming - we have felt the need to be more clear about what we mean, and be clearer in writing about what we mean by community need, and secondly to be clearer about what we mean by assessing alternatives to the Agricultural Land Reserve, and beginning a more in-depth, technical assessment of those points.

 

And so, alas, we began as I was appointed last April. By July, I was having discussions with my executive committee - which is comprised of the vice-chairs of the regional panels - and got underway with developing some guidelines on this. And we basically have a draft set of guidelines, which we'll be introducing to our process in the months ahead. So that was an issue that people - we're finding that people didn't understand the term "community needs," didn't understand how we were doing it. And just as with any organization, we're seeking renewal, clarity of purpose. So we're working on that now. And it's a technical thing. I think the guidelines will potentially be seven or eight pages long, so they're quite detailed in that regard.

 

JON STEINMAN: And that was Erik Karlsen of the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission, and you can find our more about the ALC by visiting their website, and that site is www.alc.gov.bc.ca

 

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And you're tuned in to Deconstructing Dinner, where on today's show we are taking a closer look at the province's Agricultural Land Reserve. One group we haven't yet heard from on the show is the farming community themselves. And one of the key regions putting pressure on the ALR is the greater Victoria area. Located in Victoria is Deconstructing Dinner's new southern Vancouver Island correspondent Andrea Langlois, a former radio show host at Kootenay Cooperative Radio in Nelson. Andrea had the opportunity to visit with two farmers in the region, both of whom are co-owners of Saanich Organics - a community of farmers who sell their food through a residential delivery service and through local restaurants and grocery stores.

 

Andrea visited with one of these owners - Robin Tunnicliffe of Feisty Field Organic Farm, located within the city limits of Victoria. Robin farms on three-quarters of an acre near Prospect Lake, and while her land is not within the ALR, her situation very much illustrates how the removal of land from the ALR directly affects all farmers. For Robin Tunnicliffe, agricultural land near Victoria is so expensive that she can only afford to lease land, as the value of her business is worth less than the land she grows food on.

 

And Andrea discusses the ALR with Robin Tunnicliffe.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: The Agricultural Land Commission Act states that the Commission's role shall be to preserve agricultural land. Can you respond to this, and whether you think the Commission has lived up to this role?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: What's happening now - especially in the south of the province - is they're taking land out of the Land Reserve, and putting other pieces back in in the north of the province. So the actual area's being maintained, but the diversity is not being maintained. So the land in the north is mostly pasture land and it's often rocky and it's not suitable for human crops. And also, the season is shorter up there. And so our prime farmland, which is in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island, is being taken out. And I wish I had the stats right here, but it's an alarming rate. And so as a result, our food security is being compromised, because we can't produce food for ourselves.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: Right, so you're saying that the Commission is not living up to this mandate of preserving agricultural land?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: That's right, yeah. On paper it looks great; the numbers haven't changed as far as the area in protection. But it's the spectrum of land. It's all being moved up north.

 

JON STEINMAN: As is covered on occasion throughout the media, farmers in Canada are in the worst financial situation that they have ever been in. In 2004, farmers in Canada lost 7.7 billion dollars. And Andrea Langlois spoke to Robin Tunnicliffe about the economics of small-scale farming.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: Economically speaking, what is the current state of agriculture in this region, and have you seen that change?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: I think it's getting better. I think the awareness - recently, there's been The 100-Mile Diet that's been really publicized, and it's really getting people to think about where our food comes from and the value of having food produced locally. Our food is probably twice as much as grocery store food, often. Sometimes it's on par, but a lot of times it's more expensive, and I think that the grocery stores or the government needs to help us out and even the playing field so that our food isn't more expensive than food that's brought in. I think the price of oil that's going up is going to help that a lot, because governments aren't going to be able to maintain the level of subsidy that they currently do as a result, because food is so closely tied with oil. I think the prices of imported food are going to go up, and as a result, the playing field will become more even for local growers.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: So as a farmer, do you operate a financially successful business?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: For myself, I feel successful, because I have a lifestyle that I love, and I have a meaningful job, and I'm able to pay the bills. I don't have a whole lot of savings, and I don't have the standard of living that is considered normal for citizens. I think I live below the poverty level, but I don't feel poor, because I have a lot of food, and I have a great lifestyle, and I'm getting to do the career of my choice. One thing that is worrying is that I don't know if I'll be able to sustain a level of savings that will help me in my old age when I can't farm anymore. And there really is no safety net for farmers as they age. However, I'm in the process of getting my farm to a level that I can hire people to work, and then I can - with the knowledge that I've learned and my interests - take another job on the side, and hopefully meld the two careers so that I'm able to make a living.

 

But that said, I think that our society should value the work that farmers do. And farmers shouldn't have to subsidize local food security. And that's what's happening. People have second jobs to pay for farming, when society should value the fact that farming is going on and help those farmers stay on the land, because our culture depends on it and our food supply depends on it.

 

JON STEINMAN: We are currently listening to segments from an interview with Robin Tunnicliffe of Feisty Field Organic Farm located in Victoria. The interview is courtesy of Deconstructing Dinner correspondent Andrea Langlois. As mentioned earlier, the land Robin farms on is not within the Agricultural Land Reserve. However, the reserve nevertheless affects her as a farmer.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: So how does the ALR affect you as a farmer?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: The ALR is valuable to me, because it means big tracts of land are being preserved for farming use. And ideally, I would like to see the price of ALR land drop. What's happening is that because ALR land is being taken out of the protection, people buy it on speculation. So they buy it at a high market rate, and they anticipate being able to take it out of the ALR which then quadruples its value, because it can be used for development. But if ALR could never be taken out of the reserve and if its only value were for agriculture, the land values would plummet and farmers would be able to afford their own land.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: So when other farmers in the region pull out of the industry, don't farm any more, and sell their farm to a buyer who is not a farmer, who is not intending to use it for agricultural use, how does that affect farming in this region?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: It always really saddens when I see land taken out of the ALR, because it means that it's a lost opportunity for our food system. And I think the more farmers that we have growing, the better chance that we have to - it's almost like a critical mass. If there's enough farmers growing food here, we wouldn't have to have trucks coming in, and we could just say, "No thanks, we don't need your imports." But as it stands, we're dependent on imports.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: What about when people buy ALR land and have no intentions of farming it, and are just living on it?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: It just raises my hackles when I see somebody buy a prime piece of agricultural land, and build a giant house right smack in the middle of it where no piece of it can be salvaged for any kind of production. I just think it should be illegal, and it's really short-sighted of our government to allow that to happen. We have control over what happens to our land and our community. It belongs to everyone. And it's ridiculous that we can't look far enough ahead to prevent this kind of land use.

 

JON STEINMAN: As Andrea Langlois continued her interview with Robin Tunnicliffe, Robin spoke of her recent visit to Cuba, and she made some very interesting comparisons between the way farming is treated there versus the way farming is treated here in Canada. As has been touched on in recent broadcasts of Deconstructing Dinner, Cuba is the first country to respond to the crisis of Peak Oil - the prediction that the global supply of oil has already or will soon peak. This will ultimately place our oil-dependent food system into a state of crisis. Well in Cuba, their access to oil and food was virtually cut off when the Soviet Union collapsed. And since then, they have been dealing with food in a way that many predict countries like Canada will soon have to do the same.

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: I was in Cuba this winter, and I was really encouraged by seeing an elderly couple that started farming on a piece of concrete that had been a subdivision. And Fidel Castro had bought a bit tract of housing, and he was going to turn it into a genetic research centre, but the genetic research centre ended up being a lot smaller than he had initially anticipated. And so he sold off chunks of what had been levelled subdivision, and this old couple - they must have been in their 70s - they went at it with jackhammers, and they cleared away the rubble and started growing food. And it was possible, but it just gave me hope that humans, with their ingenuity, can conquer concrete. But it would be sad if agriculture here came to that.

ANDREA LANGLOIS: So when you were in Cuba, was there something similar to an Agricultural Land Reserve?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: You know what? I don't know that, but I just know that if a family had a farm and they weren't actively farming it, they got taken off the land and they got given an apartment in the city. But if anyone who had been living in the city expressed interest in being a farmer, then they had access to land. And so I thought as a landless farmer, I would be better off in Cuba, because I could just express my interest to grow food for the country and then be given land to farm on.

 

As it stands, it's really hard for somebody who is trying to get into farming that doesn't have a farming background. I didn't have any farming background, and I just decided that I wanted to farm. And so the process to get enough savings together to rent a piece of land and turn it into a farm and figure out all the marketing and learn how to do it - because there's apprenticeship programs, but they're not mainstream - so it takes ingenuity and a real drive to do it. So it's possible for youth, but it's not a avenue that's really well-cleared for youth - to get into farming - and it should be.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: When you look at the example from Cuba that you bring up, and you look at the ALR here, would that be something you advocate as per the system here to change more in that direction?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: Yeah, I think if people want to farm, the way should just be cleared for them, because farming in itself is a huge sacrifice, and it's amazing the sacrifice that farmers will make for their jobs. Tons of people have - you know, they're couples, and one of the farmers will work off the farm probably full-time, and in the end they'll end up subsidizing their whole farm. But they're driven to that, because they know that producing food is so important, and it just feels like the right thing to do.

 

JON STEINMAN: In wrapping up the interview with Robin Tunnicliffe, correspondent Andrea Langlois ended with this final question.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: So do you believe that the management of the ALR needs to change, and how?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: Yeah, I really think so. We need to appreciate the vision with which it was put in place, and try and get more land in the south into the ALR instead of having it taken out.

 

ANDREA LANGLOIS: So do you think various levels of government, like the federal, the municipal governments, also need to get involved in this?

 

ROBIN TUNNICLIFFE: Yeah, they all need to work together. There's so many maps that have been made of all the agricultural land, and it's very well-documented what has been taken out and what's been put in. But what hasn't been put in place is how much land we need to have available to feed our population. And I think a lot of planning has to be done in that department. There's lots of planning that goes on for economic growth - where we're going to put strip malls and how much water we need for growing suburban populations - but we don't take any account into how much land we need to feed our populations. And what happens when there isn't the option to import food?

 

I heard a really scary statistic that - I just think a lot of the food that I eat, it comes from California - and in the year 2050 California is going to be an importer of food, rather than an exporter of food. And they're facing even worse pressure than we're having on agricultural land, as well as water shortages and what they call desertification - which happens when the land's just overused and there's too many agricultural chemicals put on it and too much irrigation, and so the soil chemistry just changes and nothing can grow on it. And that's happening quite quickly. So we have to put in structures to be ready for 2050.

 

JON STEINMAN: And that was Robin Tunnicliffe of Feisty Field Organic Farm located in Victoria. Robin is also a co-owner of Saanich Organics. And another co-owner of Saanich Organics is Heather Stretch of Northbrook Farm, a certified organic farm located north of Victoria in Central Saanich. And Deconstructing Dinner's correspondent Andrea Langlois caught up with Heather at Victoria's Moss Street Farmers' Market where they discussed the Agricultural Land Reserve. Unlike Robin Tunnicliffe's farm, Heather farms on land that is within the ALR, and Andrea asked Heather whether she believes the Agricultural Land Commission is living up to its mandate of protecting agricultural land.

 

HEATHER STRETCH: The short answer I guess would be yes - except when they make exceptions. The property that we're on is not subdividable, and we actually looked into subdividing it just into two. It's a 20-acre parcel, and we looked into dividing it into two so that my aunt and uncle could have a 10-acre half of it and do an agricultural operation on that; we could have a 10-acre half of it and do an agricultural operation on that, then have a separate house on each property. And we were not allowed to do that, which I think was great; I think that was fine. So it makes me quite upset when I do hear of exceptions being made to the ALR, because an exception could not be made for us even though we were intending to farm the property. But I completely respect their decision not to make an exception for us. I think that that was the right decision. So as long as they don't make exceptions, I think it's great.

 

There's some deeper challenges, I think, with the economic viability of farming in Canada at all right now - and particularly small-scale farming. And all the farming in our area is small-scale farming by necessity. There are not huge tracts of land that can be mechanized on a large scale. And the land is very, very valuable, because it's beautiful, it's close to Victoria. So there's this problem. There's extremely valuable land and there's agriculture which doesn't make - relatively speaking - doesn't make any money. So it's difficult to get people to - people who want to farm can't afford to buy land in the Agricultural Land Reserve. So I think what ends up happening is a lot of the land is owned by wealthy people who just want to live in the country and aren't necessarily interested in farming. And then in our valley, most of the land is then leased out to a handful of hay farmers, who lease lots and lots of fields in the ALR and cut hay that's primarily just fed to horses that are ridden by the people with the means in the area who live in the large houses situated on ALR land.

 

Now that's not all bad. Until we as a society value food enough to pay for food and make farming a financially viable occupation, I see the ALR as sort of holding that land in reserve - well, it is the Agricultural Land Reserve - so it's holding it in reserve until such time as either a) we need to grow our own food or b) we decide culturally that it's important to us to grow good food locally. And then hopefully the land won't be all in condos, and it won't all be paved, and we'll be able to start growing food again for ourselves if we want to.

 

JON STEINMAN: And that was Heather Stretch of Northbrook Farm, located in Central Saanich on Vancouver Island. Heather is also a co-owner of Saanich Organics, and you can find out more about the business by visiting their website at www.saanichorganics.com.

 

ending theme

 

That was this week's edition of Deconstructing Dinner, produced and recorded in the studios of Nelson, British Columbia's Kootenay Co-op Radio. I've been your host Jon Steinman. I thank my technical assistant Dianne Matenko.

 

Deconstructing Dinner is heard on radio stations across British Columbia, and is also available in a podcast. All of those affiliated with Kootenay Co-op Radio are volunteers, and financial support for this station is received through membership, donations, and sponsorship from local businesses and organizations. Should you have any comments about today's show, or want to learn more about topics covered, you can visit the website for Deconstructing Dinner at www.cjly.net/deconstructingdinner.

 

Till next week…

 


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