BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Food for thought

Opposition to proposed changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve has come from obvious quarters — the NDP and environmentalists. They squawk about anything the Liberals do.

But it may not be so easy for the government to ignore the criticism now arising from the B.C. Association of Farmers Markets,  which represents 125 farmers markets and 1,000 small-scale producers. Farmers are traditionally conservative in their approach and many come from communities which have voted Liberal MLAs into office for years.

“We are concerned that our provincial representatives have not considered our members’ views and opposition to bill 24,” said Jon Bell, BCAFM president, in a letter to Norm Letnick, agriculture minister and Lake Country MLA.

“B.C.’s farmers’ markets work tirelessly in all corners of the province to strengthen local economies and provide British Columbians with fresh, healthy local agricultural products. Our ability to continue to deliver these benefits into the future, however, is tied directly to the availability of agricultural land throughout the province.”

Within the farmers market ranks, the most alarm has come from those in the north and the Interior (outside of the Okanagan), where non-agricultural uses, such as oil and gas, could occur within the ALR.

“B.C.’s farmers markets are a rapidly growing sector that contributed $113 million in direct sales to B.C.’s economy in 2012, a 147 percent increase from $46 million in 2006. The proposed changes in bill 24 not only threaten the viability of farmers’ markets, they threaten the economic and social benefits that markets deliver to the communities they support,” said Bell.

The BCAFM also takes aim at one of the more contentious aspects of the changes — giving regional panelists the authority to make initial decisions on ALR applications.

“This governance structure was used from 2002 to 2010 and was considered less effective than the current centralized administration and vetting of all ALR applications by the ALC, which ensures strong and consistent centralized authority,” said Bell.

But the most pointed criticism is directed right at the Liberals themselves.

“British Columbians voted for a Liberal government. A campaign promise included, ‘Yes, we will maintain the excellent relationship we have built with the ALC.’ The party also said it would increase funding to the Agricultural Land Commission, and would “work more closely with farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations to preserve agricultural land.” We regret that these promises have not been upheld,” writes Bell.

“In an era of climate change, significant urban expansion, concerns about local food supply, food safety and sustainability, the B.C. government and ALC must look at ways to encourage farming. Permitting non-agricultural industrial activities on ALR land will only fragment and degrade remaining viable land, leading to greater challenges for farmers in accessing agricultural land. That being said, we support changes that will specifically help farm and ranch operations to be financially successful.”

Bell wraps up the letter by stating the popularity of farmers markets has climbed 146 per cent from 2006 to 2012 and that requires more farmers growing produce to meet demand.

“This is more than just a farming issue, and our farmers’ markets are at the centre of it,” he said.

And Bell has a point that farmers markets specifically, and agriculture in general, are critical to our community’s livelihood. All aspects of the economy benefit, whether it is retail stores, auto dealers, restaurants or non-profits.

How Letnick will respond to the B.C. Association of Farmers Markets’ plea to abandon ALR changes is difficult to know, but the government at least has been given something to chew on.


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