Future of protected farmland in B.C. could be shaped by review

The B.C. government announced Thursday it will look at rules protecting 4.6 million hectares of farmland. It says an independent commission will hold public meetings and develop recommendations this year.

Independent commission includes farmers, development critics

The future of the Agricultural Land Reserve — which includes small farms like this one in Merritt, B.C. — could be informed by the work of a commission announced Thursday by the provincial government. (Julia Smith/Facebook)

The future of 4.6 million hectares of provincially protected farmland — an area bigger than Denmark and almost five per cent of B.C.'s total area — is going under the microscope.

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham announced Thursday that an independent commission will hold consultations across B.C. on the "revitalization" of the Agricultural Land Reserve.

"The ALR and the [Agricultural Land Commission] are incredibly important to the health and economic well-being of our province's future," Popham said in a statement.

The commission will develop recommendations by 2018 or 2019 for the government to consider, the statement read.

The ALR is made up of swaths of B.C. land where farming is the primary use and other activities are restricted. It is managed by the Agricultural Land Commission, which can add land to the reserve or authorize ALR land for non-farming purposes.

Commission has development critics

Thursday's announcement held few details on the focus of the coming review. 

However, Popham said in an interview with the Times Colonist that she felt it was a mistake for the former B.C. Liberal government to divide the ALR into two zones.

In 2014, it made ALR land in the North, the Kootenays and parts of the Interior more easily available for non-farm uses while keeping Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley, Okanagan Valley and Vancouver Island land restricted.

One member of the nine-member commission, Courtenay farmer Arzeena Hamir, was a vocal critic of that decision and started the hashtag #farmers4ALR to protest it.

Lenore Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley is another member of the commission who has been critical of non-farm uses of ALR land, especially in the Lower Mainland where the land is valuable for non-farm development.

"A lot of speculators are now seeing it as a bit of a lottery ticket," she said in 2017.

Public meetings

In addition to Hamir and Newman, the independent commission consists of:

  • Chairperson Jennifer Dyson, dairy farmer and former member of the ALC.
  • Vicki Huntington, former Delta Independent MLA.
  • Chief Byron Louis, chief of the Okanagan Indian Band.
  • Chris Kloot, Chilliwack city councillor and farmer.
  • Shaundehl Runka, farmer and former policy analyst for the ALC.
  • Irmi Critcher, Taylor-area grain and oilseed farmer.
  • Brian Underhill, former ALC deputy chief executive officer.

The government says the commission will hold public meetings in Abbotsford, Cranbrook, Fort St. John, Kelowna, Kamloops, Nanaimo and Prince George and will receive public input online.