by Sue Stroud, Citizen Reporter
Every weekend families in the Capital Regional head out to local farms and farmers’ markets to buy fresh produce and other farm products. And while it’s a well-loved ritual, many are not aware that the farmland that provides this bounty is becoming prohibitively expensive for new farmers.
The cost of farmland is affected greatly by development and speculation that it can be developed. Non-agriculture development for residential, commercial and industrial uses is changing the viability of local farming. It is much more lucrative to build a sub-division on farmland than it is to grow the food the community needs and while the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) was created to protect the community’s farmland from development and speculation, its effectiveness in the last decade has been in question as we see land from the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) released or traded for other pieces of land.
According to the August, 2015 The Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable (CRFAIR) report: Exploring Farm and Food Lands Access in the CRD: A Local Government Farmland Trust Approach “Non-farm uses of farmland as well as speculative land holdings drive up the cost of farmland above its farming value and make it unaffordable to farmers. The average cost of farmland in Southern BC is the most expensive in Canada and can reach up to $100,000 per acre.
A study conducted in Saanich reported that hobby farms/rural residences in the ALR drive up the cost of ALR land in the range of $61,700 to $162,200/ha.” (A hectare equals 2.471 acres).
But the ALR isn’t the only tool for protecting farmland. For several years local governments have been researching and discussing the possibility of creating a land bank system to preserve farmland by purchasing land and providing the land back to local and new farmers at reasonable lease rates, farmers who would otherwise be shut out of the market.
When the ALR was first conceived under the NDP Barrett government in 1973, it was considered to be the most progressive legislation of its kind in North America. It originally was to have a land-banking component, but it wasn’t implemented, as the government was defeated before it could be done. Ben Isitt, Victoria Councillor and lead author of the recent report to CRD on land-banking says, “Were the provincial government to act along those lines now we might not need to proceed with this proposed land banking system.”
Help from the provincial government seems like a hopeful possibility given that the new Minister of Agriculture, Lana Popham was a farmer herself and well aware of the difficulties new farmers face.
The Regional Parks Acquisition Fund for parkland acquisitions was a real strength of the NDP government in the 1990s says Isitt, “An equivalent approach for farmland would work well.”
Isitt would prefer a fairly robust oversight option to make sure the public interest is being served and the produce is addressing food security, but he feels a land bank would also help local farmers compete with the big California producers.
“Right now the strategy is very aspirational,” says Isitt, “but over time we can address what part of the food system is over or under supplied. We can introduce targeted requests for proposals that are structured into a lease for a particular parcel of land. We don’t want to get too prescriptive and mandating choices for farmers wouldn’t work well because different lands dictate different crops. A council of farmers might meet semi-regularly to address whatever issues may arise and propose solutions.”
Not all is bright and shiny on this front however and Minister Popham may have her work cut out for her. Central Saanich Council requested the CRD develop a land bank in both 2011 and 2014. It would seem Central Saanich’s support would be unquestioned with three recent Central Saanich Mayors being farmers or managers of farming operations; Jack Marr, Alastair Bryson and Ryan Windsor. But, at the March 22, 2017 CRD Planning and Protective Services Committee meeting, Mayor Windsor did not support the motion. He was in fact absent for the vote but suggested afterwards that while he is in favour of a land bank, he has concerns about the structure. “A land bank must be set up equitably so that it is of benefit to all communities in the CRD. Where would the land be purchased, how much would be in Saanich and how much in Central Saanich? Saanich has more votes at the CRD and I would be concerned about funding something that did not guarantee some of the farmland would be purchased in Central Saanich,” said Windsor.
The following amendment was passed eliminating any mention of a land bank or agricultural trust: “That the main motion be amended to delete the words: “to explore what would be involved with implementing a farmland trust/agricultural land bank” and replace them with “to examine a range of options for assisting agriculture in the region together with the potential costs” and report back with recommendations for the Planning and Protective Services Committee’s consideration.” Only Director Ken Williams (Mayor of the Highlands) and Director Alice Finall (Mayor of North Saanich) voted in opposition to this amendment.
If a farmland land bank is to be the tool that solves some of our local food security concerns it will take leadership and a vocal public to get it there.