This article is part of Globe B.C.'s eight-part weekly series on food security in Canada. Visit this page for the rest of the series so far.
Bob Mitchell still feeds the soil at Sea Bluff Farm as he has for decades with seaweed that he hauls up from the nearby shores. But the second-generation farmer, now in his 70s, has handed over the daily farm duties to a manager. Robin Tunnicliffe coaxes dozens of crops, from asparagus to zucchinis, out of the enriched land.
The sprawling farm is just a half-hour drive from downtown Victoria, by the waterfront and backing onto a regional park. It would be coveted by realtors for development. But Sea Bluff Farm has been frozen in time, protected under the Agricultural Land Reserve for the past 40 years.
This year, the B.C. Liberal government overhauled the ALR for the first time, creating two zones that will make it easier for non-agricultural development on protected farmland outside the most productive regions. The provincial government says the changes will enhance agriculture because they will allow farmers more options to supplement their incomes, but critics fear the new rules will drive land speculation within the reserve's boundaries.
Driven by a desire for food security, the ALR was established in 1973, the first of its kind in Canada. Today, there is nothing quite like it, although Ontario and Quebec have moved to protect farmland. The ALR was a response to rapid development that saw thousands of hectares of B.C.'s prime farmland disappear under asphalt each year.
Farmers like Ms. Tunnicliffe worry that the government's new two-zone structure will weaken the land reserve, making it that much more difficult for the young farmers she mentors to find a future in agriculture. Unless they are in line to inherit farmland, many of them are destined to head north to find affordable farmland.
If the new rules spur land speculation within the ALR, those opportunities will be further out of reach.
On a warm October day, she has three workers helping her with the fall harvest, each of them eager to learn farm management so they can set up their own farms.
On average, B.C. farmers are aging and their children typically are not staying home to take over the family business. But Kristen Nammour, 28, doesn't fit the profile. She grew up in an urban environment where food came from the grocery store. "No high school counsellor ever said to me, 'you should be a farmer.'" But her small balcony garden in Vancouver produced a spark of interest, and she moved to Vancouver Island to learn how she can be a part of producing nutritious food for local communities.
"These are smart young people with capital, setting about farming in an intelligent and thoughtful way, with well-thought-out business plans," Ms. Tunnicliffe said. "I'm outraged that a change was made to this policy of the ALR. It recognized the inherent value of farmland. We can and should be feeding ourselves." The climate is changing and the province needs to prepare for change, she said. "The future of food production is in the north."
The industry has changed in the four decades since the ALR was established. Ms. Tunnicliffe grows the business by working with with local chefs. Her arugula is destined for an upscale Victoria pizzeria, one of 30 local restaurants that snap up specialty veggies such as her French breakfast radishes. Those niche markets are key because farms like this can't compete with cheap imported produce.
Over all, B.C. farms don't produce enough food to feed British Columbians.
There are 4.6 million British Columbians, and the province has 4.7 million hectares of land preserved for agriculture. On paper, that is more than enough to provide a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food in the province: It takes about half a hectare of producing farmland to produce the food for one person for one year. But about 45 per cent of the province's protected farmland isn't in production, and some of the land that is in production isn't for food – it is used for horses, or producing Christmas trees and flowers.
The result is the province produces only about half of the food residents here consume. And with a growing population and continued pressure on farmland, Richard Bullock, chair of the Agricultural Land Commission, says the trend is worrisome.
"We all have to be careful. The world is getting hungrier and one of the things we all forget as the middle class is that the pressure and competition for what we have taken for granted is going to get stiffer and stiffer. I think we will have to produce more for ourselves over time."
His office will manage the results of the government's new rules around the ALR, but Mr. Bullock says it is too early yet to say what the result will be. "There is certainly an expectation with these changes that there will be more land released [from the reserve]. I'm not sure that is the case. But a hell of lot of people have bought farmland with absolutely no interest in farming."
Hannah Wittman, a professor in the faculty of land and food systems at the University of B.C., says it is easy to be complacent: "We have a highly subsidized food production system just to the south of us; why not buy from them?" She can point to rising food prices due to the California drought as one reason that isn't a good idea. A domestic food supply system can't be conjured up overnight if the growing population of B.C. finds imports increasingly out of reach. Farmers, like farmland, need time to become productive.
The ALR was an "unbelievably prescient policy," but today farmers are struggling to make a living and new policies are needed to encourage more domestic food production. "I'm the daughter of a rancher, one of five kids and none of us is farming," Dr. Wittman said. She proposes a provincial land bank, where farmers could access long-term leases on Crown land that is within the ALR. That would allow them, like Mr. Mitchell with his bushels of seaweed, to improve the land and grow more productively.
It's one idea that Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick is considering. The MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country was dropped into the portfolio after the legislation was drafted last spring, and has been left to manage the regulatory fine-tuning after a summer of consultation. The Crown leasing proposal is "one of the things we are looking for the next few months."
As he toured the province this summer, Mr. Letnick said he saw "a wealth of people working hard on the land producing products that British Columbians are buying." He believes B.C. can grow its agriculture sector to meet future needs. "I say to all the young farmers out there, there are opportunities out there for everyone."