If there is broad support for Bill 24 and changes to the way the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) is governed, it wasn’t evident at Monday night’s Creston Valley Food Action Coalition meeting.
“A lot of us who have read the bill really closely are very, very concerned,” said Nadine Ben-Rabha, whose family operates a dairy farm that produces organic milk and cheese in Lister. “There has been no public consultation with farmers or the public. This is your farmland as well as the farmers’.”
Ben-Rabha’s sister, Erin Harris, who also works on the family farm, made the news on Monday when she and a fellow farmer from Windermere set up a table in front of the B.C. legislature to display a cornucopia of Kootenay agricultural products. The display was intended to counteract a comment by Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett, who has been quoted as saying that as a resident of Cranbrook all he can eat in a 100-mile diet is hay. Bennett was also the minister who oversaw a core review of government services that led to Bill 24.
Ben-Rabha told a group of about 30, many that sell produce at the Creston Valley Farmers’ Market, that dividing the province’s protected farmland into two zones is a mistake.
“They (the government) don’t understand that what’s grown in Zone 2 is connected with what’s produced in Zone 1,” she said. Under Bill 24, Zone 1 land on Vancouver Island, the Southwest Coast and Okanagan would continue to be treated as primary farmland. Other areas, including the North and the Kootenays, would see a shift in priority. Applications to change the use of Agricultural Land Reserve parcels in Zone 2 would be assessed with a different set of standards, including economic development priorities. Ben-Rabha said the changes could have a dramatic and undesirable effect on the Creston Valley.
“There is no recognition that the Creston Valley is a lush and vibrant agriculture community,” she said. “Even people being hopeful that their land can be cut up into smaller parcels is enough to drive up land prices.”
The Harris family farm is about 100 acres, she said, but numerous small leases total about 600 acres, where feed for milk cows is grown. Loss of access to leased lands would threaten the value-added production of milk and cheese.
“Worst case scenario: We lose our farm,” she said. “Jobs, economic activity, everyone in the community loses.”
Randy Meyer, who produces hay, cattle and chickens, said he, too, depends on leased land. The loss of agricultural land to other uses would have a negative impact on local food production, he said.
“There is nothing definitive in this legislation that allows parcels to be divided, and there are farmers that changes can help — if it’s done right,” he said.
He encouraged residents — producers and consumers — to contact local politicians to express their views.
Canyon resident Pat Martin said it was important to recognize that changes to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) affect everyone, and that more emphasis should be placed on supporting food production in the province.
“Farmers who are struggling in this valley are our problem,” she said.
Putting the Creston Valley into Zone 2 and changing the way the ALC operates by placing applications for change in the hands of government appointees is the wrong way to go, said Joanne Galius, who farms with her husband in Canyon.
“The arm’s length relationship with the ALC has been beneficial to us,” she said. “We need that to continue.”
Julie Groot, whose family has long been involved in food production, including market gardening, orchards and greenhouses, cast a lone dissenting voice. Small parcel owners are hamstrung by current regulations that restrict land use to agriculture, she said. A small parcel that can’t produce minimum sales requirements loses farm status and is subject to much higher tax rates.
“In 2009 this government cut the Ministry of Agriculture budget by 30 per cent,” Ben-Rabha said. “And now they tell us these changes are to help farmers. It doesn’t make sense.”