Farm-to-table eatery forced to open brewery to keep serving burgers on ALR land
Restaurants deemed non-farm use in Agricultural Land Reserve, but beer or wine lounges allowed
Seven years ago, Jodie Lucas and Will Gemmell bought a failed century-old hay farm on Vancouver Island and reimagined it as a successful restaurant.
But now their on-farm eatery is threatened by government regulations.
At first they switched crops to grains, hot-house produce and a few animals. Then two years ago they added an farm-to-table eatery and dubbed it Rusted Rake.
Nanoose Bay residents flock in for breakfast, burgers and banter. The eggs, beef and vegetables are grown on the farm. But four months after the restaurant opened, the Agricultural Land Commission sent a notice that said restaurants weren't allowed on the Agricultural Land Reserve unless they were connected to a brewery or winery.
"Bistros, cafés and restaurants are considered non-farm uses in the ALR. Except for food and beverage service lounges [connected to a alcohol-related establishment]," the rules say.
The ALC says they have worked with the farm owners for almost two years to come to a solution. To protect farmland the rules for land in the Agricultural Land Reserve "[do] not specifically allow for commercial operations such as restaurants," Avtar Sundher of the ALC wrote to CBC.
Landowners must apply, which this couple then did.
"... If a lounge off a brewery is any better than an restaurant, [that] is a policy question for which I do not have a response, but you can contact our minister's office," said Sundher.
CBC reached out to B.C.'s Minister of Agriculture, but has not yet heard back.
The Rusted Rake owners say they never initially planned to make booze.
So after years of re-establishing the run-down acreage they've shifted — again — and planted barley, to start a brewery. They've spent more than $150,000 in brewery equipment.
But they question why farmers are forced to do this, and they've started a petition to keep their eatery as is. It didn't take long for 2,000 people to sign up in support.
"It's very emotional for us because we see how this can work," said Gemmell, who doesn't want to compete with local growers who have established stands. Gemmell said they bought the farm when it was lost to bank foreclosure and spent years finding a way to make it viable. They grow blueberries, raise chickens and keep two steer for beef. The 80-seat restaurant made sense in the small community.
"There was not anywhere to go for people to meet up and connect," Lucas said.
Rusted Rake bound by ALR rules
The couple have spent the past year-and-a-half wresting ALR regulations around the Rusted Rake.
"We are trying to figure out a future for our farm here. Being handcuffed, we can't make firm decisions at all," he said.
So they decided to try to change the laws that are making their innovative farm model so problematic. Their petition explains: "Currently under the ALR rules and regulations farmers are not allowed to have a food service facility (such as a restaurant) unless there is an alcohol facility (such as a brewery) on the farm. By allowing farmers to operate food service facilities without liquor production we will be providing more opportunities for businesses like ours to exist and to give small farms like ours a chance to make a living wage."
Dave Birchmore, a compliance and enforcement supervisor with the ALC, wrote in an email to CBC News that both the ALC and the Regional District of Nanaimo have been working with the farm owners for more than two years to solve the issues.
The couple first applied to operate a "non-farm use" business in 2018, and this is under review.
Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham told CBC in a written statement that she is looking at the policies that affect farmers like the owners of the Rusted Rake.
"This could include policy changes related to value-added activities on the ALR such the serving of food raised or grown on the farm to consumers," she wrote.
But she said any policy changes would need to prioritize preserving farmland and the long-term "integrity" of the ALR.