VICTORIA — The organization representing B.C. farmers and ranchers has withdrawn its support for proposed changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The B.C. Agriculture Council, which publicly endorsed the government’s overhaul of the ALR when it was announced last month, will instead meet with Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick on Wednesday to try to convince him to delay and change the legislation.
“What we’re really hoping is that the minister will take the approach that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done here,” said council chairman Steve Vander Waal. “We need to consult with agriculture and other citizens in the province to actually come up with the right long-term solution. So we’re going to park this thing for a period of time and actually go out there and consult and get the right changes in place.”
The government introduced a bill in late March to split the ALR into two zones and relax rules for farmland development in the zone that encompasses B.C.’s Interior and North.
The Agricultural Land Commission, which oversees reserve land with a mandate to protect it for agricultural use, will be allowed to consider non-agricultural purposes, such as economic, cultural and social factors, in deciding whether farmland can be developed.
At first, it appeared the agriculture council endorsed the changes on behalf of its 14,000 members.
And chairwoman Rhonda Driediger attended a government news conference at the legislature and publicly declared: “We’re looking forward to the changes.”
But Driediger retired, and the council voted unanimously two weeks later to oppose the changes.
“Rhonda didn’t have the knowledge of what was in Bill 24 at that time,” said Vander Waal. “She hadn’t seen it, or had the ability to go through it.
“BCAC cautiously supported the legislation when it was tabled, based on verbal information, based on video conference calls with the minister and the draft press release. After reviewing the actual legislation, and hearing farmers’ and ranchers’ concerns, BCAC had no choice but to withdraw its support.”
Farmers are concerned that the two-zone system will allow farmland in B.C.’s north to be more easily used for natural resource projects like liquefied natural gas, said Vander Waal.
“I think we’re genuinely afraid that (the changes) will trump the well-being of agriculture and agriculture land,” he said.
There are also worries that the current system of using regional panels to approve or reject changes to agricultural land leaves commissioners more easily influenced by local advocates to make decisions not in the best interest of protecting agriculture, said Vander Waal.
The B.C. government has introduced but not yet passed its ALR bill.
Letnick, who was appointed agriculture minister on April 11, said his first move was to reach out to the council, and on Wednesday he will spend the entire day discussing the legislation with them.
“As the new minister, it’s important I do my due diligence on the bill to make sure I’m comfortable with what’s being proposed,” he said in an interview Monday.
Letnick said he doesn’t want to signal whether he might change or delay the legislation, which was drafted by his predecessor Pat Pimm (who is on medical leave) and Core Review Minister Bill Bennett.
“I’m going to review the bill,” said Letnick. “I understand it does not please everyone, and I appreciate the feelings out there. And once I’ve had the opportunity to consult with the people over the next ... two to three weeks, if not sooner, I will make my recommendation to caucus.”
Some ranch and farm groups have supported the changes because they will more easily allow farmers the ability to establish businesses on land not suitable for farming and use the money to keep farming operations viable.
NDP agriculture critic Nicholas Simons said the agriculture council’s decision to oppose the ALR changes is “huge news” that strikes a blow to the government’s credibility.
“They just had the floor knocked out from underneath their claims that people are validating (the ALR changes),” said Simons.
The NDP has been calling on the Liberal government to scrap the bill, because they say it unnecessarily harms the future of the province’s agricultural land.