Opinion

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Land freeze thaws

The irony may have been completely lost on the bureaucrats in Victoria.

Last week, the provincial government announced sweeping changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve.

“These improvements are aimed at continuing to protect B.C.’s rich farm land and helping farmers make a better living from it,” said Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm.

The goal of putting more money into the pockets of farmers is admirable, but it comes at the same time that producers in the North Okanagan continue to struggle with the government’s devastating meat processing rules created in 2007.

Those regulations wiped out farm-gate slaughtering and made it virtually impossible for small-scale farmers to get their livestock processed. Many threw up their hands and walked away, impacting the economic lifeblood of rural communities.

In response to mounting pressure, Victoria announced in February 2013 that up to five slaughtering licences would be allowed in the North Okanagan as pilot program. To date, not a single license has been handed out.

What this says is that while there is apparently a vision for the ALR, practical, immediate measures that would help farmers are being ignored.

Now when one looks at the changes proposed to the ALR, there doesn’t appear to be a significant impact locally. Under the plan, non-farm uses will remain prohibited in the Okanagan.

But there is the suggestion that agricultural value-added activities could be permitted within the ALR. No details have been provided so does that mean food processing facilities or greenhouses could suddenly take root?

The potential of alienating our already limited agricultural land base is a concern for Paul Christie, a Coldstream agrologist.

“I wrestle with protecting soil for agriculture and then covering soil for agricultural uses,” he said.

Obviously value-added activities will support the economy, but once the soil is replaced by concrete foundations, it’s gone forever and the region has even less ability to feed itself or adapt to climate change. There is sufficient property that barely grows weeds so there shouldn’t be a need to put factories where crops flourish.

The reality is that most farmers are land rich and cash poor, and the ALR prevents them from taking advantage of their most valuable asset and pursuing non-farm uses, such as subdivisions, that would stem the red ink.

But this situation is more indicative of a breakdown in relationships than a fundamental flaw with the ALR.

When the Agricultural Land Commission was formed in the early 1970s, it was clear that in return for land being frozen for agricultural uses only, there would be support for farmers. But over the years, government funding - whether it’s crop insurance or replant programs - has been cut or unpredictable. At the same time, foreign products have been allowed to flood our market, creating significant competition.

The government’s policy adjustments of last week will mean very little for the average North Okanagan farmer and they will continue to struggle financially.

 

This scenario, of course, will contrast dramatically to farmers in northern B.C. who will be able to cut their losses and collect rent cheques from natural gas and oil speculators coveting their land.

 

 

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