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Cannabis conundrum: Field of dreams or destruction of prime agricultural land?

A Central Saanich farm’s decision to grow marijuana on a mass scale creates flashpoint as legal pot looms
Shawn Galbraith, left, CEO of Evergreen Medicinal, discusses his plans with neighbour Franz Winkel: Differences of opinion on how land should be used.

Under a clouded sky that threatens rain, cyclists, moms pushing strollers and riders on horseback traverse the gravel path that meets the end of Lochside Drive in Central Saanich.

The path looks onto a green pastoral land that rolls out like a carpet, a blank canvas of protected agricultural land.

Developer turned potpreneur Shawn Galbraith looks at the 36-acre parcel and sees unlimited potential for growing Canada’s next cash crop: cannabis.

His vision is to develop the Stanhope Dairy Farm into 21 glass-and-metal, high-security greenhouses that could bring jobs and a windfall of taxes for the District of Central Saanich.

> More stories from Capital Progress magazine

Franz Winkel, the 80-year-old livestock farmer who lives next door and has farmed in the area since he emigrated from Holland in the 1960s, sees a project that could pave over prime agricultural land, ruining it for future generations.

The argument is being repeated across the province, as the Ministry of Agriculture grapples with whether to continue treating cannabis as a crop that can be grown within the Agricultural Land Reserve.

“Build your greenhouses, but not on farmland that can be used by the generations coming after,” Winkel told Galbraith, gesturing expressively as the two volleyed arguments back and forth while standing on the property line that divides the two farms.

“It’s very hard to be a farmer now and make a profit if you’re not maximizing the potential of the land you’re growing on,” Galbraith responded. “This is an opportunity for us to utilize this land and generate a lot of jobs and a lot of revenue that will serve the community.”

Galbraith owns Evergreen Medicinal Supply Inc. and is in the process of purchasing Stanhope farm, owned by the Rendle family. The farm was previously the source of frustration for neighbours irked by a pungent compost facility and its new iteration is proving to be a flashpoint yet again.

Martindale residents have formed a group called Citizens Protecting Agricultural Land. They’ve been circulating a petition that calls for a ban on cannabis grow-ops on agricultural land; the petition has 1,400 signatures.

“We’re not against marijuana, we’re against having large-scale cannabis factories on prime farmland,” said Ken Marriette, the group’s spokesman.

Jim Gowans, an organic farmer in the Martindale Valley, said the cannabis project contradicts the intent of the Agricultural Land Reserve, one of the legacies of NDP premier Dave Barrett.

“The intent was meant to protect farmland and increase food security. Cannabis is not a food,” Gowans said.

In 2015, B.C.’s Liberal government decided to allow federally licensed medical cannabis operations on protected farmland, which opened the door for business people looking to cash in on the green rush to scoop up ALR land at a cut rate compared to commercial property.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham announced in January that an independent commission will consult with farmers and stakeholders across B.C. on the revitalization of the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Rather than narrowing in on marijuana’s place on farmland, Popham said there’s a larger conversation to be had on whether greenhouses should be allowed on Class 1 to 7 soil, which has the highest value for food production.

“So what I’ve been saying is it’s not necessarily about cannabis on the Agricultural Land Reserve, but maybe it’s a conversation about how we’re growing things on the ALR,” Popham told Capital magazine. “I know that outside of just cannabis, this is an important issue to municipalities who are seeing a lot of their farmland, in their words, being paved over.”

Protected farmland makes up about five per cent of B.C.’s total area, or about 4.6 million hectares. However, according to a white paper called Protection is Not Enough, by researchers at Kwantlen Polytechnic’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, only 50 per cent of that land is being used for farming.

Agricultural land has increasingly been eyed by people with deep pockets who build mega mansions on farmland or developers eventually hoping the protected status will be revoked. Rising land prices have made it near impossible for young farmers to buy up an acreage to till the land, Popham said.

“The Agricultural Land Reserve was the most important land-use tool we’ve put into place under the Barrett government,” she said. “The highest and best use on agricultural land should be agricultural food production but we get into these competing uses.”

The nine-member commission, comprised of a diverse crop of farmers, is expected to report back by the end of the summer, Popham said.

Marriette said the group can’t wait that long before action is taken to protect farmland.

“That’s going to keep the door open for this gold rush, for the people who want to make money. Once you destroy the farmland, how do you turned it back into farmland?” he asked.

Since he went public with his plans in December, Galbraith has spent time meeting face-to-face with his opponents, trying to assure them he hears their concerns and that Evergreen is not a faceless monolithic company.

He’s given Winkel and other nearby residents a tour of the much talked about concrete bunker across from Michell’s Farm, Galbraith’s first Health Canada-approved medical marijuana facility.

Health Canada has given the go-ahead for Evergeen to build an initial 150,000-square-foot, $25-million greenhouse, “which will almost disappear on this site,” Galbraith insisted as he stood flanked by Winkel and Gowans.

“We intend to build as much as the market will support,” he said. “The site will support up to three million square feet of production space, which is large. It would be like any other large greenhouse operation in Richmond or Delta.”

After meeting with the citizens group, Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor introduced a motion, which passed in February, that asks Premier John Horgan and Popham to place a moratorium on cannabis production on ALR land until the province consults with farmers, municipalities, industry and the public.

Windsor said the previous Liberal government made the decision to allow cannabis production on farmland largely with medical marijuana in mind. With the legalization of recreational cannabis on the horizon, Windsor said more consultation needs to be done at the provincial level.

Municipalities cannot pass bylaws that violate provincial regulations, which leaves Central Saanich councillors’ hands somewhat tied. Beyond just protecting farmland, Windsor has heard concerns from area residents who worry about the Evergreen facility’s impact on traffic, light pollution and odour.

“I haven’t heard a giant push back from people who say we don’t want cannabis,” Windsor said. “It’s what does it look like and how does it impact the community?”

“It is likely not the only [cannabis-related] application that will come before Central Saanich.”

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