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Farmland protection isn’t always a benefit to farmers

Faye Street ran cattle in the Kootenays for three decades, a lifestyle that allowed her to put fresh, homegrown food on the table. "My kids never ate store-bought bread. I made my own butter," she says with undisguised pride.

Ms. Street is a second-generation farmer, and she and her husband expected to hand over the ranch to their sons when they retired. "It is a great life, it's a wonderful way to raise children," she said. "We'd [work] for 14, 16 hours a day up in the mountains in the summertime … Then you'd come in at night and eat quality food."

But her boys would have none of it. "They both just looked at us and said, 'Are you crazy? You work like dogs and never make any money.'"

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All around the valley, Ms. Street has watched farmers and ranchers give up the fight. She says the province needs to help sustain agriculture – not by protecting every inch of farmland, but by allowing producers more flexibility to make a living.

She hopes that Bill Bennett, the minister responsible for a "core review" of government operations, will do what no minister has dared do in 40-odd years: Wrangle the sacred cow that is the province's Agricultural Land Reserve.

Mr. Bennett could introduce legislation as early as this week to change the ALR and its governing body.

Late last year, a leaked document suggested Mr. Bennett was preparing major changes to the management of protected farmland in B.C. It touched off a political furor. At that time, Mr. Bennett insisted he has no plans to take over the independent agency that has managed 4.7 million hectares of agricultural land in B.C. since the reserve was established in 1972.

But in a recent interview, he was clear he's ready to make changes to the mandate of the Agricultural Land Commission.

In Mr. Bennett's mind, there are two distinct farming regions in B.C. There are the rich lands of the Fraser Valley and around Metro Vancouver, where there is constant pressure from encroaching real estate development.

That still appears to be untouchable, in his mind. But then there is the rest of the province, to the north and east of the District of Hope.

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"When the reserve was created, the further away from the Fraser Valley and the Lower Mainland the government got, the less care, attention and resources went into drawing those boundaries," Mr. Bennett said.

"The starting point for people who live beyond Hope, in rural British Columbia, is that there is a bunch of land in there that never should have been there in the first place. What's wrong with having a look at that?"

The ALC is looking at those boundaries, however. Over the past two years it has reviewed boundaries that define protected farmland around the province. For example last month, in the Elk Valley, it excluded 1,400 hectares of land from the ALR, and swapped it with 700 hectares of new, more productive farmland to be protected.

Lana Popham, the NDP MLA for Saanich South, said the problem does not lie within the commission, but in the government's failure to support farmers. The agriculture budget was cut by 25 per cent in 2009 – just as consumers were starting to catch on to the local food movement.

"There is no strategic plan to take advantage of this opportunity," she said. She expects Mr. Bennett will strip the commission of its real powers, leaving it just a shell so that the government can get on with its economic development plans unfettered by independent oversight.

"I can guarantee, the changes will not support farmers," she said.

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Ms. Street sees no inconsistency with being both a defender of farmland, and an opponent of the present system. The commission has a mandate to protect the land in the reserve, a model that she describes as useless. The commission needs to preserve not just the land, but the farmers too.

"Our food-producing land should be sacred to everyone," she said. "We have lost half the food producers here in the Kootenay Valley. People need to wake up. You have to take care of the farmers, and they will take care of the land."

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More


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