British Columbia

Surrey council endorses plan to protect 'unique' highly fertile farmland from development

Surrey council is supporting the agricultural future of a large parcel of highly fertile farmland that was threatened by future development in the fast-growing city. But First Nations in the area say the protection is an unwelcome complication to land claims talks.

Farmers say land grows 30 and 50 million servings of fresh vegetables each year

Ron Heppell pulls potatoes out of the ground on Campbell Heights farmland in Surrey. The city has decided to throw its support behind adding the land to the province's Agricultural Land Reserve. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Surrey council is supporting the agricultural future of a large parcel of highly fertile farmland that was threatened by future development in the fast-growing city, but First Nations in the area say the protection is an unwelcome complication to land claims talks.

Council voted unanimously Monday to throw its support behind an Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) proposal to put 123 hectares of land in Campbell Heights into the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

"We've had a massive loss of productive agricultural land," said Coun. Mike Bose, ahead of the vote. "This land is unique. It cannot be replaced anywhere in Canada, and I would argue, in North America."

ALR land is protected from non-farm uses, with a number of restrictions on development and construction activities.

The land, at 192nd Street and 36th Avenue, has been highlighted for its fertility. Three generations of the Heppell family have farmed it since the 1970s. 

They say it produces between 30 and 50 million servings of fresh vegetables like potatoes, carrots and cabbage yearly —  enough for one serving on every Metro Vancouverite's plate for two to three weeks. 

From left: Tyler, Ron, and Wes Heppell are pictured at their farm in Surrey in a 2022 photo. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Proponents have said protecting the land for future agriculture use will help with local food security, especially as the cost of produce imports from the U.S. keeps growing, and as climate change impacts food production in coming years.

The federal government owns the land but has leased about two-thirds of it to the Heppells. It has declared the land as surplus and wants to divest.

Surrey city staff have noted that if the city, region or province were to put in an expression of interest in the land during the divestment process, taking steps to protect the land for farming could play into that process.

First Nations express concern

Kate Newman, a researcher with the University of the Fraser Valley's Food and Agriculture Institute, says while the decision to add the land to the reserve or not is fully for the provincial ALC to make, it does remove the possibility of a municipal-requested review of the decision, which could upend the process.

"And if [the city is] in support, it makes it very unlikely that any opposition to this decision is going to succeed," Newman said.

Wes Heppell holds soil where cabbage is growing at his farm in Surrey. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Newman says about the only groups that could make a substantial push to keep the land our of the reserve are First Nations. A group of three local first Nations — Katzie, Kwantlen and Semiahmoo, or KSS — have expressed objections to putting the land in the ALR.

A law firm representing the Nations say ALR restrictions on the land would infringe on their rights and the commission failed to adequately consult the Nations first as required by law.

"KKS ancestors have occupied, governed, stewarded, and used the land, waters, and resources of their territories, which include the [Campbell Heights] land, since time immemorial. The land formed part of a landscape that was vital to the socio-economy of KKS including with respect to travel, trade, and the harvesting of resources," reads a submission from a public consultation.

"The land continues to be culturally, spiritually, and economically important for KKS, and their members continue to exercise their rights in this area except where they have been restricted due to government regulation, displacement, and development."

A Katzie First Nation representative said Tuesday evening the chiefs of the three First Nations are presently in Ottawa meeting with MPs and federal ministers about the land.

They are looking for a solution that "respects the interests of the various stakeholders involved whilst recognizing the vital importance of this land to the three Nations and the Federal government's commitment to the implementation of Indigenous rights and UNDRIP."

The Katzie representative said the Surrey land is a "cornerstone" of Indigenous rights and reconciliation for the three First Nations and talks have been ongoing for over a decade.

Farmers pleased

The Heppells, for their part, are thrilled by council's support for preserving the land for crops.

Tyler Heppell says with increasing public awareness about the importance of food security as grocery prices rise, keeping local farmland productive is the right call.

"There will never be another piece of land like this in British Columbia for farming," Heppell said. "We need to protect it and keep it in agriculture because that's its highest use."

The Agricultural Land Commission says the possibility of protecting the land will be considered "in early 2023."


Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.

With files from Anita Bathe and Jodi Muzylowski