MERVILLE—The next round of changes coming to the Agricultural Land Reserve was announced September 19 as representatives from the BC Ministry of Agriculture and the Agricultural Land Commission met with farmers in the first of six consultation sessions about how the province could support farmers.
Many of the more than 125 farmers, landowners and agriculture advocates who arrived at the community hall in Merville were angry with changes made under Bill 52, but Agricultural Land Commission CEO Kim Grout told the group even more changes are coming through regulations that will implement Bill 15. That bill provoked widespread criticism for moves to centralize decision-making and take away landowners’ right to deal with the commission directly.
“Bill 15 doesn’t have force and effect yet,” Grout told the meeting. “It requires regulations to bring it into force and effect, and we haven’t seen those yet.”
Those regulations will strengthen the commission’s mandate, remove the right of landowners to apply directly to the commission to exclude land from the Agricultural Land Reserve and require reconsideration requests be made within 90 days of a decision.
“The commissioners are going to be asked to give priority to protecting and enhancing the size, integrity and continuity of the ALR, and the use of that land for farming,” said Grout, providing an overview of what each change will entail.
With respect to shutting out landowners from the exclusion process, she said applications have always gone through local government first. Any application landowners filed via the commission’s website automatically went to the local government concerned before the ALC even saw it.
“Our part of the process isn’t triggered until local government sends it to us,” she said. “In the new order of how things will work, a private property owner won’t be able to go into the portal and initiate an application. It would go to local government for them to consider sending it to us. … [It’s] more of a broader, collaborative, community planning focus.”
The shorter timeline for reconsideration requests will bring ALC protocols in line with those of other government tribunals, which entertain reconsideration applications for 60 to 90 days after an initial decision. Also, the decisions must have had no previous request made regarding them, giving commission decisions a greater force and permanence.
“Reconsideration is part of the current process. The only change is the timeframe,” said Grout, soothingly.
But the angry and frustrated tone of the meeting underscored discontent with recent legislative changes. During a question-and-answer session that lasted nearly 90 minutes past the official end of the meeting, farmers voiced concerns that bills 52 and 15 had created uncertainty and confusion. Ham-handed government communication outreach to local government and farmers themselves hasn’t helped.
Many found out about the meeting in Merville at the last minute, even though it was supposed to launch a public consultation – recommended by last year’s committee report on revitalizing the ALR – on how government could improve its support of farmers. The information page, [http://engage.gov.bc.ca/supportingfarmers], was advertised on a flyer posted to social media by local MLA and meeting host Ronna-Rae Leonard but it didn’t go live until the consultation officially kicked off.
With slim, often negative margins, and a lot of wealth tied up in land their children will never be able to afford, many attendees said greater protection for farmland has limited their options and priced out new farmers.
“You failed,” one landowner bluntly told ALC chair Jennifer Dyson early in the meeting as she spoke about the need to make farmland available and affordable not just today but for future generations.
Another, Gene Ambrose of End of the Road Ranch near Qualicum Beach, cited statistics pointing to the tide of red ink facing farmers, and those looking to get into the business.
“If they get into farming, they’re going to lose money, most likely,” he said. “They’ll pull money from other sources; they’ll pull it from savings, and they’ll lose it. So why are we fighting to keep land prices down so they can do that? Why are we wanting to punish the next generation?”
Succession planning was an issue many speakers highlighted, noting that if farming doesn’t pay then they should be allowed to engage in other activities on their land to keep agriculture – at any scale – alive. Many wanted the right to a second home that could either generate rental income or accommodate multiple generations who might not work the farm directly but provide important supports in the form of expertise, childcare and similar assistance.
James Mack, who represented the agriculture ministry at the meeting, said the new consultation process was a chance for government to consider such options.
“We felt we had to do something to stop what I call the run on the bank that was happening,” he said of the regulations implemented under Bill 52, which nixed second homes for family members. While a grandfathering period was subsequently announced that gives landowners until February 22, 2020 to secure approvals for a second home, Mack acknowledged that government could have done better.
“We realize that people got caught out in that decision,” he said. “We want to figure out what comes next.”
Many participants simply wanted the ability to make a living from their land, by farming if possible.
“If you want people to continue farming, please find ways to let people make money off the farm other than by farming,” said Ambrose.
Others said a more restrictive regime at the land commission would prompt them to take their activities underground and let the land commission come after them rather than let the commission disallow them up front. (Grout had earlier told the meeting that “the land commission is not out there looking for non-compliance,” noting that investigations are the result of complaints.)
Mack noted that the commission’s relationship with farmers was not healthy, and he pledged on behalf of the ministry to work for improvement.
“I know we’ve done a bunch of things wrong in the organization,” he said at the end of the meeting. “We are listening.”
The listening will continue at five meetings scheduled for October, including Delta (October 1), Dawson Creek (October 2), Prince George
(October 3), Kelowna (October 10) and Castlegar (October 30).
Comments gathered during the meeting will form the basis of a final report. A timeline for publication of the report has not been given.