In British Columbia we are fortunate to have the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which has been called one of “the most successful agricultural land preservation programs in North America.” The creation of the ALR in 1973 was bold and forward-thinking, recognizing that less than 5% of British Columbia’s landmass is arable and that food lands should be preserved as a public trust for current and future generations. The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) was created as an independent administrative tribunal to administer the ALR with the mandate to preserve agricultural land and encourage farming in BC.
While the ALR and ALC enjoy strong public support, including the broad support of farmers and agricultural organizations, they have experienced ongoing pressure from development and land speculation. Most recently, the passage of Bill 24 in 2014 raised a great deal of concern, especially in local regions like ours where farmland was relegated into a new ‘Zone 2’ that afforded it less protection under the ALR. Currently, the Ministry of Agriculture is working on revitalizing the ALR and ALC, and is seeking public input on recommendations for a strong and robust Agricultural Land Reserve.
Read on to learn why the ALR is important, how it and Bill 24 affect our food-shed, and how to share your input!
Why is the ALR Important?
“If you eat, you are involved in agriculture” – Wendell Berry
BC’s food growing land is extremely limited, at 5% of our landmass, and most of it is concentrated in valleys where pressure from urban development is intense. Even in rural areas competition from non-agricultural activities has long threatened to deplete this limited resource. Before the ALR came into effect in 1973, farmland losses were at 4,000 to 6,000 hectares a year.
One of the important ways that the ALR had protected farmers is by mitigating rising costs of farmland. Prior Bill 24 changes in 2014 , the cost of farmland in BC had risen by 5% over the last 5 years in comparison with a 63% increase across the rest of Canada. Farming as a business often has a long return on investment, taking many years to yield moderate profits. This makes it very difficult to afford land for farming if one must compete with residential or industrial use. Even with the ALR, one of the major challenges for young and beginning farmers is access to affordable farmland.
What’s up with Bill 24?
In 2014, Bill 24 broke the ALR into two zones. Zone 1 included the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan, and Vancouver Island. Our Kootenay region was relegated into Zone 2 along with the Interior and North. In Zone 1, the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) was left to its mandate to prioritize agriculture and farmland protection. In Zone 2, in the ALC was asked to also consider economic development, regional planning objectives, and any “other prescribed considerations,” in addition to agriculture. The bill also gave cabinet the authority to define “other prescribed considerations” at any time and gave it the authority to define farm and non-farm uses.
Some of the strongest opponents against Bill 24 in our region were farmers who recognized that these changes threatened farmland and opened it up to greater speculation by developers. Former NDP environment minister Joan Sawicki believed that Bill 24 was aimed at making things easier for developers, noting that “traditionally, only about five per cent” of applications for removal from the ALR come from farmers.
One of the largest frustrations for farmers and other opponents to Bill 24 was that it had no basis in agronomy. Proponents of Bill 24 claimed that Zone 2 should be treated differently because “of shorter growing seasons and poorer soils.” However these claims were contrary to the fact that over 70% of BC’s Class 1 soils are located in Zone 2, and it also failed to acknowledge the diversity of crops (and growing conditions) required for a fully functioning food system. Minister Bill Bennet frequently argued that 85% of the farm cash receipts came out of Zone 1. This figure is understandable when you know that Zone 1 has a high concentration of dairies, poultry operations, and fruit crops, whereas much of Zone 2 specializes in field crops and livestock. Of course, grain does not compete pound for pound with strawberries in dollar value, but both are needed. Furthermore Zone 2’s crops are needed to support Zone 1 – dairies in the lower mainland, for example, are unable to grow crops for livestock feed in their region because of poorly suited growing conditions and restricted land access; they instead rely on Zone 2 farms to grow their feed.
Bill 24 also changed the governance model of the ALC, entrenching 6 regional panels of just 3 individuals each who were tasked with all decisions about ALR exclusions and subdivisions in their home regions. While regional input is always valuable, regional decision-making had been tried in the past and it was to the detriment of agricultural land. Local political, personal and other pressures mean that agricultural land often loses out.
Many hope that the current revitalization of the ALR and the ALC will include the renewal of a province-wide commission that protects all of our province’s food-lands equally.
Share your input!
This January, B.C.’s Minister of Agriculture, Lana Popham, announced the formation of an independent committee to lead a public engagement process and provide recommendations to the provincial government around the revitalization of the ALR and ALC. Currently, the Advisory Committee is seeking public input “to deliver recommendations for a strong and robust Agricultural Land Reserve.” The advisory committee has prepared a discussion paper, that can be useful to review before submitting feedback. Let’s give the Advisory Committee and the Ministry a strong public mandate to maintain a strong ALR!
Public input is due by April 30th and may be submitted by:
- Online Survey: https://engage.gov.bc.ca/agriculturallandreserve/
- Email: ALR_ALCRevitalization@gov.bc.ca
- Or by Mail:
Minister’s Advisory Committee
Revitalization of ALR and ALC
C/O Ministry of Agriculture
PO Box 9120
Stn. Prov. Govt.
Victoria BC V8W 9B4