'We protected the farmland but forgot about the farmer'

A review of agricultural land protection will examine how to stop dumping of construction fill on prime farmland and other threats to food production in B.C.

Minister says cannabis growing, dumping of construction fill on farmland among issues for review

One grower in Delta, who plans to switch from vegetables and fruit to marijuana production, estimates it will increase revenue by 10 to 15 times. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

Should prime farmland be used to grow cannabis in concrete greenhouses, or as a dump site for fill — drywall and all — from construction sites?

These are among the challenges for the review committee named this week to help modernize the province's 1970s-era Agricultural Land Reserve policy.

"Our goal is to bring it up to the current state of what food security means for the province," Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

"Corky Evans said with the ALR, we protected the farmland but forgot about the farmer," Popham said, citing a former NDP agriculture minister. 

Popham said the review needs to address threats to farmland, as well as ways to create legislation that not only protects the land but also encourages actual farming. 

An example of those threats is the common practice of dumping construction fill, including rocks and drywall, on agricultural land in areas such as the Lower Mainland and parts of Vancouver Island where there are high levels of construction activity.

In August 2017, Abbotsford voted in favour of removing protected lands within its municipal boundaries from the ALR because of a shortage of land for industrial development. (Shutterstock)

"There's no way to really stop that," Popham said, because no definition of "soil" currently exists for land inside the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which includes about five per cent of British Columbia's land base.

Popham said she also hopes the committee will address concerns about production of non-food crops on agricultural land, such as growing cannabis in concrete-based greenhouses, which is an allowable use under existing ALR rules.

In 2017, Delta's Mayor Lois Jackson raised concerns about the pressure to replace vegetable crops with pot production after the municipality received 35 applications from companies looking to grow marijuana on land inside the ALR.

More recently, residents in Central Saanich, near Victoria, expressed fears about a proposal to construct, at over 26 hectares, one of the largest cannabis-growing operations in Canada on a former composting facility.

"When it comes down to making decisions on food production over non-food production, we have a lot of other things that grow on agricultural reserve land that you wouldn't necessarily eat," Popham said.

Evergreen Medicinal Supply Inc., which proposes to grow medicinal cannabis in greenhouses on 26 hectares in Central Saanich, currently operates from a concrete building on a 2.9-acre lot near the proposed new facility. (MIchael Tymchuk/CBC)

Popham said the current review is much different from the one conducted by the previous B.C. Liberal government. In 2014, which divided the ALR into two zones and opened up farmland in the B.C. Interior for more development.

Popham said the new ALR review needs to explore strategies for connecting young farmers with land.

She said the nine-member committee will look at barriers such as high prices for rural real estate that is within the reserve.

"One of the reasons that agricultural land is so expensive in this province is because there's always been a speculative market on it," she said. "People believe that you can develop it into housing or other projects." 

"So, we're going to try and shore that up and make sure that threat is less than it ever has been," she said.