Agriculture Minister Lana Popham at her ministry office in Victoria, Sept. 1, 2017. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

Farmland reforms ahead for NDP government

ALR ‘zone two’ on the way out, Lana Popham says

Getting rid of the two-zone Agricultural Land Reserve is just one of the changes in the works for the NDP government, along with serving B.C. produce in hospitals and restoring a province-wide Buy B.C. marketing program.

The second zone of the land reserve to allow additional land uses outside the development-intensive areas of the Lower Mainland, southern Vancouver Island and the Okanagan is a failed experiment, Agriculture Minister Lana Popham told Black Press in an interview.

It has created additional administration for the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), without much extra activity generated to help farms in zone two, where average annual farm receipts remain low, Popham said.

The second zone was championed by former energy minister Bill Bennett, in response to frustration that rules to protect the Fraser Valley were imposed across the province. The result was Peace region farmers prevented from allowing oil and gas service trucks to park on their land in winter, and next-generation farmers forced to tear down second homes built to house their retired parents.

“I think the bottom line is there hasn’t been much effect at all,” Popham said.

Popham met with ALC chair Frank Leonard last week, two years after he was appointed to implement the two-zone system. A long-time mayor of Saanich, Leonard replaced Richard Bullock, who was fired after resisting the B.C. Liberal government’s efforts to de-centralize ALC land use decisions.

Popham described her discussion with the ALC executive as “productive,” adding that Leonard’s term “is up in the spring and we’ll see where we are.”

As opposition agriculture critic, one of Popham’s favourite symbols for B.C. farm support was Vanderhoof hospital serving its patients fruit cups from China. She has already identified a producer in Abbotsford willing to meet B.C. fruit content rules to supply packaged applesauce to hospitals, and that is the direction she intends to take to generate more sales and processing for B.C. farmers.

The Buy B.C. logo on produce, replaced by the B.C. Liberal government with a series of regional marketing programs, is coming back. Popham said it remains the most popular topic in her discussions with farmers around the province.

• • •

Full interview with Agriculture Lana Popham at the ministry office in Victoria Sept. 1.

Minister, what’s your intention with the two-zone Agricultural Land Reserve that was created by the previous government?

I can see that we’ll be moving back to one zone, but I would like to preface that by saying that I have to consult in a meaningful way. The Agricultural Land Commission will be part of that as well as stakeholders and the people of B.C., but that will be a change that I can see coming.

The purpose of zone two was to create more economic activity around farms outside southwestern B.C. Has there been any tracking of that?

There has been tracking, and from what I know over the last few years of watching that play out, there hasn’t been that much more activity on the non-farm use side.

Also, there hasn’t really been an encouragement of farming. So really, it’s a bit of a non-issue. And so there is in my view not much reason to keep two zones in place if they’re still operating the way the one zone did. It creates a lot of administration, so when you’re using a commission with a fairly tight budget, the last thing you need is to add financial burden for not much outcome.

Have there been any adverse effects?

I think the bottom line is there hasn’t been much effect at all.

It was intended to help marginal farms in the Interior. Half of the farms at the time had $10,000 a year in farm receipts or less. Is there another way to get at that?

There is absolutely a better way to get to it, and I think that’s been the crux of the whole problem. You would have heard [former NDP agriculture critic] Corky Evans say for years, the Agricultural Land Reserve protected farmland but forgot about the farmer.

What we’ve seen in the last 16 years is really a lack of policy that supports farming. The past government tried to be creative, allowing farmers to make income other than farming, instead of really focusing on the farming side of it.

Over the last 40 years that the reserve has been in place, our environment has changed. There are areas where we are growing things that we didn’t grow before. For example, more northern parts of the Okanagan are growing cherries where they weren’t able to grow in the past. And that has something to do with the way we’ve been developing our trees, but also the climate advantages that weren’t there before.

So what we have to do is make sure that land stays protected, but put in policies that add possibilities for farm income.

My whole mandate is base on economic development for agriculture. The first part of the platform is called Grow B.C. and that is revitalizing the Agricultural Land Reserve. It will try to take development speculation out of the market by making sure that the reserve is more defensible.

So when you have agricultural land, class one to seven soil, that is for food, not for housing development. And so once that comes out of the equation, we may see the speculation die off and the land prices become more affordable for farmers. But that’s not really going to happen overnight.

Encouraging younger farmers to get onto farmland is going to take a bunch of solutions. We’re looking at how do we lease farmland to young farmers, opening up new areas for young farmers.

But the bigger game changer for agriculture, and I think for farming income, is the Feed B.C. part of our platform. And that is encouraging our institutions like hospitals, long-term care, anywhere we’re spending money as a province on food procurement, to increase the amount of food that’s not only grown in B.C. but processed in B.C.

The best thing about this is it really reaches into the rural communities that I think have been left out of development with agriculture as a leader. When you look at a place like 100 Mile House, their hospital was getting fruit cups from China, right in the middle of our fruit season.

I’ve talked to processors, I’ve talked to growers, and we have an amazing fruit filling processor in Abbotsford who has the potential to create applesauce for our hospital system, and if the requirement is a certain percentage of B.C. apples, they’re absolutely willing to go there. So now we’ve got a better market for B.C. apples, we’ve got more processing jobs, and an opportunity for processors to set up in rural communities.

Once you have this stabilization of our domestic market, you start to lead people into putting land into production that wasn’t there before. It’s not a quick fix. It’s like turning a large ship around, but it’s a long-term policy view that makes or breaks agriculture. You cannot have these policy choices based on election cycles.

One of the changes made to the reserve was relaxing requirements on second homes, so you don’t have to tear them down when elders move on or pass on.

I’m mandated to look at everything again, to encourage farming and protect farmland. We have to start looking at housing. There are ideas like co-op housing on farms so young people are housed. It may not be realistic for people to find accommodation off farm.

We also have generational transitions that have to happen. That all has to be considered, because from my perspective, most of the decisions that have been made in the last 16 years have been about, how can we skirt around the idea of actually farming to use the land.

What’s the status of Agricultural Land Commission chair Frank Leonard?

I met with the commission [Sept. 1], and we had a productive discussion. Leonard’s term is up in the spring and we’ll see where we are.

You’ve been looking at wildfire impact on ranches and hay supply.

It’s been a huge eye-opener being elected in the middle of a crisis like that. I’m grateful that I’ve had eight years [as opposition critic] to establish relationships in those areas, so a lot of the ranchers and farmers have my cellphone number and they’re able to text me directly day by day.

When it started to happen there was certainly panic, but this ministry and other ministries have stepped up and tried to be stronger than ever on the response side.

The emotional toll in those areas has yet to be seen. For the recovery efforts in those areas, we have a huge role to play, and I’ve met with the federal minister and secured funding for that. We’ll see supports like we’ve never seen before around fencing. We’ve had supports around Crown land fencing, but we’re going to go into private fencing, because we need to get farmers and ranchers back to where they can make a living again.

It’s unprecedented what we’re going to be doing. We’re going to be making an announcement on Tuesday with the federal government.

What do you have planned for the Buy B.C. program?

Buy B.C. was initiated in the 1990s by an NDP government, and swiftly gotten rid of as soon as the B.C. Liberal government came in. It was one of the most successful marking programs that agriculture has ever seen, because it was a provincial program.

The B.C. Liberals tried to do marketing programs, but they’ve ended up being quite piecemeal, and the agricultural community and the processing community across B.C. has always been pushing to have the Buy B.C. program back.

Even though it hasn’t been in operation for 16 yeaars, it’s still one of the most recognized logos that we have in the agricultural community. So we’re going to start bringing that back, as early as October.

It will be a way to market our products to our own residents, and we can now expand that because we have ways that are affordable, like social media.

We haven’t made a formal announcement, but it’s in my mandate letter, and I can tell you that I’ve had the most response on that from one end of the province to the other.

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