The B.C. Liberal government has announced that farmers and ranchers operating in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) are targeted in some improved policies and new funding.
This includes a $1.6-million operational funding infusion to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) for 2012/13 to temporarily boost its annual budget of $1.92 million.
A related government release states the new legislation, funding and other policy changes are intended to strengthen the sustainability of the ALC.
Not all local stakeholders think these are adequate improvements, however, or even appropriate.
After the province ordered the first major review of the ALC in 2010, performed by its then newly appointed chair Richard Bullock, Victoria recently identified several related changes to the commission.
Bullock had been assigned to meet with farmers and other stakeholders across the province to discuss and determine what changes were required within the ALR.
While the new changes are intended to improve the ALC’s operations, they clearly don’t impress local farmer Rod Hennecker.
A key member of both the Horse Lake Community Farm Co-operative and the Community Enhancement and Economic Development Society (C.E.E.D.S.) organic farming group, Hennecker says the funding is inadequate.
“It’s not nearly enough to bring it back to where it was before.”
The B.C. Liberal government’s three-person regional panels, brought in almost 10 years ago to make ALR land exclusions locally, haven’t worked well, he adds.
Prior to 2002, decision-makers were based outside the areas involved, but Hennecker notes this leaves it open for conflict of interest to seep into the equation.
The release indicates the new legislation will, however, enable its chair to have greater oversight of regional panels and expand enforcement by allowing involvement of other government officials.
The changes also include a five-year moratorium on repeat (initially denied) applications for excluding land from the ALR.
A moratorium should be placed on any more exclusions whatsoever from the ALR, Hennecker says, adding it was created 37 years ago for a valuable purpose.
“We’ve had all this time to decide what is [or is not] farmland, and because we go on with having more and more exclusions all the time, it opens the door to speculators to buy up farmland and then just wait until they can get it out of the land reserve.”
These exclusions result in increasingly expensive farm land, Hennecker adds, at a time when more farmers are sorely needed for local food production and rural economies, now and into the future.
“We need to protect farmland.”
He says some of the planned new policies will only create more problems.
The government release states that aside from the funding, some operational sustainability will come through new provisions for self-supporting revenue generation by the ALC.
It goes on to state the new legislation will give the commission a structure to charge provincially regulated service fees.
Hennecker’s concern is the changed fee structure will see this revenue generation coming from increased fees for exclusions.
“It’s ridiculous to try to protect farmland, and increase the fees for applicants to keep [the ALC] operating. It then relies on exclusion applications to survive.”
Other new changes include recruitment of an ALC chief executive officer, an online application tracking system, legislation allowing enforcement by other government agencies and a new standard bylaw model restricting building in the centre of ALR parcels.
Hennecker says the “nutshell” is these new measures are inadequate to help ensure B.C.’s agricultural future.
“Government has to recognize agriculture is a critical part of B.C. and it should not be degraded in importance. If they think we can keep importing from South America and Mexico, it is really short-sighted.”