B.C. to ease land protection rules in shorter-season regions

The body tasked with guarding British Columbia’s farmland from non-farm development is about to get more flexibility in how it allows farmers in shorter-season growing regions to use their land.

The B.C. provincial government on Thursday announced a package of “improvements” to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) meant to “better recognize the province’s regional differences.”

The ALC, an independent tribunal able to make final decisions on specific land uses within B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), will now oversee two distinct ALR zones.

Zone 1 will include the ALC’s Island, South Coast and Okanagan panel regions; Zone 2 will include the Interior, Kootenay and North panel regions. The ALC oversees, and will continue to oversee, the six regions through its six separate commission panels.

In Zone 1, the province said, where “land is in greater demand and there are development and population pressures,” ALC decisions will continue according to the status quo, “made on the basis of the (ALC’s) original principle of preserving agricultural land.”

In Zone 2, where “growing seasons are shorter and there are lower-value crops,” ALC decisions will follow that principle but also will include “additional considerations” giving farmers more “flexibility” to support their farming operations.

The ALC, the province said, will be given “broader flexibility” to consider non-agricultural home-based businesses. “Acceptable uses” in such cases will be determined through regulation in consultation with the ALC, the B.C. agricultural sector and the Union of B.C. Municipalities, the province said.

“This flexibility responds to concerns from farmers in certain parts of the province, where growing seasons are shorter and farmers need year-round income to support their farming operations.”

Out of the five per cent of B.C.’s land base in the ALR, 10 per cent of ALR land produces 85 per cent of the province’s farm cash receipts, the province noted. The South Coast panel region alone, which includes just three per cent of ALR land, produces 65 per cent of B.C. farm cash receipts.

By comparison, the Interior, Kootenay and North panel regions in Zone 2 contain 31, eight and 50 per cent of ALR land respectively, producing 4.5, 2.5 and eight per cent of B.C. farm cash receipts.

“Modest changes”

“With 10 per cent of the land inside the ALR generating 85 per cent of total farm sales, clearly that land is invaluable,” provincial Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm wrote in a separate essay on the province’s website Thursday. “That’s why from this core review, that land, on the south coast, Okanagan and Island regions remains protected, as it was when the ALC was created. Nothing is changing.”

Even in Zone 1, Pimm noted, the province is open to discussion as to whether regulations should be updated “to help farmers grow their farm businesses” — for example, easing the rules around on-farm processing of what’s grown on the land. “We’re open to further conversation because we think this could be good for agriculture and food security,” he wrote.

In the other 90 per cent of the ALR, the ALC will be allowed to consider home-based businesses “that might help farmers subsidize their farming operations, by supplementing their income.” In Zone 2, he wrote, “incomes generated off the land sometimes isn’t enough to cover the bills.”

The government, he wrote, believes these “modest changes support the ALC in its role as independent decision maker and farmland protector, while helping farmers get ahead and making farming a more viable career option for future generations.”

The B.C. government set up the ALR between 1974 and 1976 as a “special” land-use zone in response to “the serious erosion of our agricultural land base,” according to the province. Up to the 1970s, the province has said, almost 15,000 acres of prime farmland were lost each year to urban and other uses.

The ALR covers about 11.6 million acres in which agriculture is recognized as the “priority use,” farming is encouraged and non-ag uses are regulated.

The province’s overarching farmer group, the B.C. Agriculture Council, said Thursday it has so far had just “limited engagement” in the province’s current ALR review process.

“Changes are needed to strengthen the economic landscape for B.C. farmers, but these changes must not jeopardize future farming generations or the long-term food security of our province,” council chair Rhonda Driediger said in a separate release. “The best way to avoid negative change is to involve those most impacted by it — B.C. farmers.”

In the government’s own release Thursday, Driediger was quoted as saying the council looks forward to “openly engaging with the province as new regulations are developed.” — AGCanada.com Network

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