Local fruit growers view changes to ALR rules as positive

Oliver grower says he wanted changes, but wants to see details

Changes announced this week to the Agricultural Land Commission look to be positive for fruit growers and the industry as a whole, according to Fred Steele, president of the B.C. Fruit Growers Association.

“I think some of this is trying to address, in a positive way, is how to make it profitable for farmers to stay on the land. If that is the intent … that is a good thing,” said Steele.

Oliver cherry grower Greg Norton said the agricultural sector has wanted changes for a long time, but he’s waiting to see the details.

“On the face of it, there could be some advantage to agriculture, but it’s in the details when we will learn more,” said Norton.

The government announced a long list of changes to the ALC Tuesday, including splitting B.C.’s farmland into two zones to better recognize differences regional differences in land demand, population pressures and agricultural viability.

But what may be most important is what isn’t on the list. Last week a document leaked from the provincial government indicated consideration was being given to making the ALC part of the Ministry of Agriculture and giving the Oil and Gas Commission more authority on land use decisions within the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Instead, the ALC will remain an independent decision-maker and continue to make final decisions on specific land uses within the ALR, though the existing system of six regional panels will be formalized, to strengthen regional decision making as well as giving local governments the opportunity to engage with the ALC earlier in their land use planning processes.

Steele is relieved the ALC won’t be losing its independence.

“I think that might have been rumour or it might have been  a trial balloon, but I don’t see any evidence of that here at all,” he said.

“It has to remain as independent as possible. It should stand on its own merits and I think that is where they are going with this. It shouldn’t be underestimated the public support for the ALR across the province.”

Farmland in Zone 1, which includes the Okanagan, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island, ALC decisions will continue to be made on the basis of the original principle of preserving agricultural land along with the consideration of new value-added farming activities, such as food processing, on farmland.

Steele supports that move, saying it will open up opportunities for growers in the valley.

“I think it is a chance to explore a number of ideas and rejuvenate the apple industry and see if we can’t raise the volumes again,” said Steele.

Norton agrees that on farm processing is an absolute necessity, but again, wants more details.

He hopes the province will follow through on its promise to include farmers in the upcoming discussions of what shape those changes will take.

“We need to know what that looks like before it can be fully supported. That opens up a huge can of worms, said Norton. “Promises are great and it certainly looks encouraging that agriculture will be at the table.”

In the rest of the province, where growing seasons are shorter and there are lower value crops, the doors will be thrown open wider, giving the ALC the ability to consider allowing non-agricultural home-based businesses.

The announcement issued by the province Tuesday promises the Ministry of Agriculture will enter discussions with the ALC, the agricultural sector and the Union of B.C. Municipalities on what might be included on the list of value-added farming activities to be added under the new format to Zone 1, and what non-agricultural uses will be added in Zone 2.

Some have concerns, though, that the changes will result in a significant loss of farmland in the north.  a small advocacy group, the B.C. Food Systems Network, the changes raise question about agricultural lands in BC’s north.

“We already know that we will have to look north for food production as growing seasons change due to the effects of climate change, such as the present drought in California,” said Abra Brynne, co-chair of the 300-member  B.C. Food Systems Network.

“Almost half of the ALR lands are in the north, with 72 per cent of BCs remaining prime quality lands in the Peace River Valley.

“Future generations cannot afford to lose that food growing potential.  There is just too much at stake.”