Comment: Site C land definitely has agricultural potential

Re: “Reports of lost Site C farmland simply not true,” comment, Oct. 3.

In his opinion piece, Jim Anderson offers up a dog’s breakfast of misinformation that warrants rebuttal.

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First up is his blanket dismissal of all who disagree with him as zealous critics who oppose the project for political reasons.

As an agricultural economist and policy analyst with no political affiliations, my opposition to the dam is based on two years of research culminating in my January 2014 appearance as an expert witness before the Joint Review Panel to provide testimony on the agricultural impact of the Site C dam.

Excluding the dismantling of the Canadian Wheat Board, the Site C dam is the single most blatant transgression of public policy I have witnessed during my 45-year career as a Canadian agrologist.

Retired as an agrologist in 2016, I remain engaged in public discussion on Site C because, as a professional, I have little choice. This is simply too important.

So let’s unpack Anderson’s claims:

Site C dam will affect 12,759 hectares (31,538 acres) of land, flooding 6,469 hectares (15,985 acres), 60 per cent (3,816 hectares, or 9,430 acres) of which is prime agricultural land. Anderson and I agree on the amount of land to be flooded. But it goes south from there.

Accepting B.C. Hydro’s groundless assertion that 56 per cent of this prime farmland “may never be used” (because, for example, it’s situated across the river with no access), Anderson says “only1,600 hectares has actual potential.” He is wrong.

All 3,816 hectares of alluvial soils to be flooded are extremely high capability land (Class 1-3, improved ratings). In the east-west running Peace River Valley’s Class One climate for agriculture, this land has the same cropping capability as the Fraser and Okanagan valleys, with higher crop yields due to longer northern daylight hours.

Anderson goes on to say: “little of the land — less than 400 hectares” is currently in crops. The implication is that if this were good farmland, it would be in active agriculture.

What Anderson fails to note is that the entire valley has been part of a legal flood reserve since the late 1950s, when dams on the Columbia and Peace River systems were planned by U.S. and Canadian interests. Site C is the last dam in the system. Under the “shadow of the dam” for almost 60 years, most of the land to be flooded was sold to the Crown years ago.

Anderson dismisses as “pure hokum” my testimony before the Joint Review Panel that this land is capable of producing sufficient vegetables to meet the nutritional needs of more than one million people a year, in perpetuity. In fact, this figure comes from a report filed with the B.C. Utilities Commission in 1982 (The Peace River Site C Hydroelectric Development: Vegetable Industry Study, prepared for B.C. Hydro by Canadian Resourcecon Limited and R&H Services Limited, Exhibit 196). This statement is based on 1,666 hectares.

When the remaining high-capability land dismissed by B.C. Hydro is included, the figure doubles to two million people.

Why should we care about vegetable land? B.C. imports more than half the fruits and vegetables we could produce in this province, mostly from California and Mexico. Climate change, water scarcities, population growth and transportation costs all mean higher prices for imported horticultural products. One in four children live in poverty in B.C. Fruits and vegetables are the building blocks of nutrition.

The Peace River Valley is closer to Vancouver than California’s Central Valley and much closer to northern communities. Canada’s Nutrition North program has been described as an abject failure. Don’t B.C. children, including those in the north, have the right to good nutrition? Veggie-flavoured potato chips won’t do it. Families have to be able to afford fresh fruit and vegetables.

Picture this: If all B.C. universities came together to hold the (mostly Crown) land in an education co-operative, they could use the residential facilities already erected at Site C to house a centre of excellence in organic and sustainable production. Offer students two-year practicums in intensive or extensive organic production, working with local farmers, and give them the opportunity when they finish to continue farming as a co-op member. Invite the world to come and study.

This land is our foodlands commons — in trust for future generations.

Wendy Holm is an agriculture journalist and author, B.C. Agrologist of the Year 2000, a Distinguished UBC Alumnus and a double Queen’s Medalist. She lives on Bowen Island.

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