Les Leyne: New ALR zones are a failure, study says

Les Leyne mugshot genericAgriculture Minister Lana Popham got exactly what she wanted from the hand-picked committee that submitted its review of the Agricultural Land Reserve on Wednesday.

It sums up the ALR as a sacred trust, which is music to the current government’s ears, since an NDP government invented it 45 years ago.

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It declares that it’s in grave danger and under assault by real estate profiteers and the oil and gas industry. That’s the perfect basis for a new crusade on behalf of farmland.

Best of all, it recommends ditching the former government’s changes that gave landowners in some regions more leeway to use their property in different ways.

That’s precisely what Popham was looking for when she ordered up the review in the first place.

Former independent MLA Vicki Huntington and Popham were sisters-in-arms when it came to the ALR. They were of one mind on most of the issues around it and argued vehemently against the changes the B.C. Liberals made four years ago.

So when Popham made the retired Huntington chair of the advisory committee for revitalizing the ALR this year, the direction it was going was clear to all.

Remember all that stuff from 2014 about recognizing regional differences and giving farmers in certain areas more flexibility for “limited value-added” activities?

That’s all going to be reversed.

The Liberals invented a two-zone system, where farming-only restrictions were relaxed on ALR land outside of Vancouver Island, the Fraser Valley and the Okanagan, to give farmers more avenues to make money.

That’s now determined to be a useless and unfair invention that weakens the premise of protecting farmland.

“Zone 2 [the Liberal-created one] appears to have been established solely to support economic development and other community interests in the ALR and impacts the credibility and stability of decision-making across the ALR.

“Reinstating a single zone will provide a strong, stable and consistent legislative and administrative framework.”

The advisory group also cast an anxious eye on the oil and gas industry, and what it’s doing on ALR land in northeastern B.C.

B.C. has reached a breaking point in terms of the energy sector’s encroachment on the ALR, it said. Some agricultural land is left unusable, and temporary uses have become permanent. They are permanent industrial sites built on farmland and next to farm communities.

It holds the Peace River neighbourhood of Farmington up as an example. There are 559 active wells within 15 kilometres of the neighbourhood, with hundreds more in the works.

There are 575 residences, 50 of them within 500 metres of a well or facility.

“There is a growing incompatibility of agriculture and extraction activities due to the growth in the size and number of surface activities that are required to support subsurface extraction; the industrial creep into the ALR is increasingly noticeable.”

The first batch of recommendations from the interim report includes an urgent call for a provincewide shift to an agriculture-first focus in all ALR decisions.

The Liberals found that Zone 2 farmland (much of it in the Peace Country) was low value. But the new report says it is some of the best farmland in the province.

One element missing from the report is any consideration of the farmers themselves. That might come later in the final report, but Wednesday’s interim report is vastly more interested in farmland than in farmers.

Statistics compiled by the previous government suggest they need all the help they can get. StatCan found seven years ago that half of B.C. farms have annual sales of under $10,000, three-quarters are under $50,000.

A quarter of all B.C. farm operators work full-time at other jobs. Their average age is over 55, and B.C. had the lowest percentage of farmers under 40 (six per cent) in Canada.

Three-quarters of B.C.’s farm cash receipts come from the Fraser Valley, the Island and the Okanagan, which have only about 10 per cent of the ALR lands.

Those were some of the reasons the Liberals set out to relax the rules and let landowners make more non-farm money off their land.

Any future help for farmers will have to come without bending the rules about protecting the land.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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