Helping Farm Families?

The proposed changes to the Agricultural Land Commission are being spun as for the benefit of farm families (press release).  It is hard to argue with someone who claims they are doing something because they want to help struggling families.  However, should the issue of protecting agricultural land and the issue of helping struggling families be linked this way?

Compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it (

Compassion is probably one of the best human qualities.  I don’t think there are many people who don’t feel for struggling families, families that are having difficulty making ends meet.  I think many of these people would like to be able to do something about it.  The question then is what to do.

Sustainable:  of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged  (

How do we reconcile compassion with sustainability?  Should we order things?  For example, if a family is struggling to make ends meet, should we overlook any damage that they are doing to the environment?  Should we allow them to damage the environment as a way of dealing with their struggles?  If there is a poor family living in an old house with a leaking septic system next to our drinking water source, should we be compassionate and just overlook this threat to our drinking water?  If that family can’t afford to pay, who should? In general, we won’t tolerate this.  We will order them to repair their septic system, and if that isn’t possible, end up taking possession of the property, evicting the family, and either repairing it or demolishing it.  While the whole legal process is complicated, actions like this are taken (Mission Creek, June 2013).

Should sustainability come first?  Should the first condition be protecting that which is important for the environment and long term well-being of humanity and life on earth? Should compassionate actions be conditional on not compromising sustainability?  Almost fifty years ago the late Kenneth Boulding argued that we are moving from a frontier economy to a spaceship economy (The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth).  In a frontier economy, there is always more space and there are always more resources on the frontier.  In a spaceship, everything must be conserved if we are to survive.  In a spaceship, compassionate actions cannot be allowed to compromise the survival of the passengers.

How does this relate to the Agricultural Land Reserve?  Do we need to protect our agricultural land because we (or some future generation) won’t be able to survive without it?  Probably not.  Here in BC we only grow about half of our own food (BC’s Food Self-Reliance), and our population is growing faster than our food production.  So, should we just abandon efforts to protect agricultural land here in BC?  MLA Bill Bennett, champion of the proposed changes, seems to think so (the Tyee, 3 April, 2014).

Mr. Bennett is right that farm markets won’t feed our growing population and they are not a solution to the food security challenges of poor families.  Farm markets tend to be expensive, selling ‘yuppy grub’.  The environmental benefits of farm markets and local food is not as clear as proponents assert (US Department of Agriculture).  If Mr. Bennett’s statement is correct, is his conclusion that the ALR should be weakened (or done away with)?

Community: a unified body of individuals

Indigenous: produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment

A few years ago I heard my UBC colleague Jeanette Armstrong speak, and one of the things she talked about was indigeneity.  She described indigeneity about connection with place, about living in harmony with the land and environment that we inhabit.  What I took away is that we can all learn to be indigenous.  Learning to be indigenous means cultivating our connection with the place we live, and there is little more fundamental to connecting with the place we live than working with the land to produce the food that sustains us.

In a modern economy we cannot all be farmers, and many people don’t want to spend their time gardening.  However, when agriculture takes place in our community, and when we support that agriculture in such a way that all in the community can at least share a bit of the bounty, then we are at least a little bit connected to the land.  As we continue to live in the same community, we absorb the cycle of life that we are embedded in, through seeing the activities taking place on the land and through the food we consume.

So, what about helping farm families?  If we want local food and we want families to be producing that food, then we should be helping families to farm.  If many farm families, through no fault of their own, are struggling, then we are clearly not helping families to farm.  However, I don’t see how enabling people who own agricultural land to do things other than farming is helping families to farm.  It is tough when land owners see large profits that they can’t get hold of because of the ALR rules.  It is even harder when a family desperately wants to stay on their land and in their community, but can’t make a living farming.  I think we have to be careful to temper our compassion with wisdom.  Simple solutions – families with farmland are struggling so let them use their land for other things – may be lacking in wisdom.


Should Summerland Grow?

A proposed land swap in Summerland has been in the news of late (Global News).  Town council is proposing to remove 80 hectares of agricultural land near the town and replace it with some arguably less productive land slightly larger farther away from town.  The town argues that it needs to grow to expand.  It further argues that developing closer to the core reduces sprawl, saves on infrastructure costs relative to growth further away, etc.

But why should Summerland grow at all?

The economy here in the Okanagan depends on growth.  The figure below plots data from BC Stats on the Okanagan Economy in 2012.  Construction, and large shares of Trade and Retail, and Financial and Business Services (which includes legal services and real estate) relate to bringing new people to the Okanagan.  When we stop building new homes and businesses and selling those to newcomers, people loose jobs and struggle to make ends meet.  But does it have to be this way?


The Okanagan will continue to grow.  It will continue to attract people because of its lifestyle and climate.  However, does that mean we have to spread this growth around to all the communities in the Okanagan.  Why should Summerland (or Osoyoos or Oliver or Armstrong) grow at the same rate as Kelowna or Vernon?  Is it possible that some parts of the Okanagan, some communities, have enough people already, and that it is better to concentrate the growth somewhere else?

I think that politics is a big part of this.  More numbers from BC Stats show how the population of the three regional districts in the Okanagan have changed over the last three decades.  In the early 80’s, the Central Okanagan already had the largest population of the three regional districts.  That wasn’t true thirty years earlier, before the first bridge.  Going forward to the present, and the Central Okanagan has more people than both other regional districts combined.


Why does population matter?  Kelowna is big, busy, congested, noisy and at times downright unpleasant compared to Penticton.  It is in such a state that the premier is looking to help by building a second bridge across the lake.  But this is the rub.  Because Kelowna is big, it gets more money from the provincial government.  It has a bigger market, so business finds it a more attractive place to be.  Given how our water rights system works too, as Kelowna grows, its claim to the scarce Okanagan water also grows.  That is the consequence of a first in time, first in right system of water rights with a use it or loose it provision.  From a political perspective, from an ability to secure resources and exert influence, communities that don’t grow get left behind.

So back to the question, should Summerland grow?  Listening to some of the proponents of the land swap, Summerland must grow.  Should Summerland grow isn’t even a question they are considering.  Maybe it should be.  Maybe we should be looking at the Okanagan as a whole and deciding where the best place to accommodate more people is.  Maybe some parts of the Okanagan are already ‘full’ and should not grow.  I won’t answer the question for Summerland, but I will pose it, and I hope that there are people willing to seriously consider it.  Of course, that also means we have to learn to work together for the good of the valley as a whole, not just for ourselves or those in our neighbourhood.

“Improving” the Agricultural Land Commission

The provincial government says it is ‘improving’ the Agricultural Land Commission.

Modern government speak is interesting.  When I want to change the way my course is organized while that course is underway, I don’t describe what I want to do as an improvement.  Until I’ve had a chance to hear from everybody in the class, I don’t know if it is an improvement.

I like to believe that our government represents all of us and respects all of us.  The very fact that we disagree about who should lead us during an election should, I think, make the winning party humble enough to remember that what they want to do isn’t supported by everyone.  I guess the honest statement would be ‘The governing Liberal Party thinks that its changes are improving the Agricultural Land Commission.’

So what are the proposed changes?  The government press release can be found here.  They are making four main changes to the way the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) makes it decisions about applications for changing the use of land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

  1. Increase opportunities for farmers to earn a living and continue farming their land,
  2. Recognize B.C.’s regional differences to better support farming families,
  3. Improve land use planning coordination with local government,
  4. Modernize the Commission’s operations.

The press release states that these ‘improvements’ will protect farmland and support farmers.  There is nothing in these changes that enhances the protection of farmland.  All the changes focus on strengthening regional input into land use decisions and facilitating new activities on agricultural land.

Allowing non-agricultural uses on agricultural land is not a new idea.  What can we learn from history?  Gravel is a valuable commodity in the rapidly growing parts of the province.  In river deltas, such as the Fraser Valley, there are large gravel deposits under farmland.  In principle, we could peel back the topsoil, mine the gravel, fill the hole with some other material, and then put the soil back.

The image above is a screen capture from the maps provided by the City of Chilliwack.  The diagonal green lines identify lands that are part of the ALR.  The blue line defines one parcel of agricultural land.  Half of the parcel is a lake, an abandoned gravel pit.

I grew up on a dairy farm nearby.  The plan proposed at the time was that the soil would be moved aside, the gravel removed, the hole filled with sand, and then the soil returned.  My late father was convinced that it would never be rehabilitated.  Something like twenty years later, there is a dike of stockpiled soil surrounding a pit filled with water.  My father was right, and the rehabilitation has not happened.

The promise was made.  Why didn’t the reclamation happen?  In a 2005 application by the City of Abbotsford to remove lands from the ALR, it estimated reclamation costs at between $20,000 and $50,000 per acre (letter here).  This pit covers almost fifteen acres.  It would cost at least a quarter million, and perhaps as much as three quarters of a million dollars to rehabilitate this site.  Once the gravel has been mined, then there are no further revenues from this site.  This creates a pretty strong incentive to avoid paying the rehabilitation costs.  Sometimes companies declare bankruptcy.  Sometimes they just ignore the rehabilitation until someone tries to enforce the original deal, and then claim they don’t have the money and will go bankrupt if forced to clean up the site.  There are plenty of excuses that the mining company can use to avoid the rehabilitation that they have promised to do.

This challenge is not new.  Mining operations in the US are required to post a performance bond sufficient to cover the rehabilitation costs of the mine site (Cornell University Law School).  They learned through bitter experience that mining companies had this nasty habit of disappearing after they have removed everything of value from the site.  The way to deal with this is to require a mining company to post the money up front.  That way, no matter what happens to the company, the government has the funds to rehabilitate the site.

Within the details of the changes is entrenching the role of regional boards.  These regional boards have a rather checkered history of protecting agricultural land, as documented Ryan Green.  Ryan found that when the regional boards were created, exclusion rates increased.  Regional boards responded more to the undefined ‘community need’ as justification for exclusions.

We have an agricultural land reserve in this province because we have decided that protecting our ability to grow food here should be protected.  Not everyone agrees that we should protect agricultural land this way, and land owners often can’t cash in the same way they could if the ALR didn’t exist.  However, the public at large is strongly supportive of the ALR.  We need to recognize that if we are not careful in how we implement these changes, it may amount to little more than creating new pathways to get land out of the ALR.

I think we can follow the example of US mining law.  Allowing non-agricultural uses of agricultural land – gravel pits, RV parks, etc. – should be accompanied by a performance bond.  This bond should be sufficient to pay for the cost of rehabilitating the site to its former agricultural capability or higher.

Will requiring a performance bond make it harder for owners to develop alternate uses?  Yes it will.  If what they are proposing has a good chance of success, they can certainly find a bank or other partner willing to help finance the bond.  If the venture has little chance of success, then requiring a performance bond may make it untenable to being with, which is a good thing.  If the venture goes ahead and then fails, the funds are available to clean up the mess.  Requiring a performance bond will help filter out those proposals that don’t make financial sense.

One more thing to consider is land with such a performance bond that is subsequently taken out of the ALR.  One point of a performance bond is to prevent development on agricultural land which destroys the agricultural value of the land.  The aim is to stop these developments being one step towards an exclusion from the ALR.  The bond should therefore be forfeit if the land is subsequently excluded.  The ALC would use these funds to support rehabilitation elsewhere in the ALR.

Requiring a performance bond and having the owner forfeit the bond if the land is removed from the ALR will help reduce speculation.  Land owners who want to get their land out of the ALR need to convince the ALC that, at the least, there will be no net negative impact on agriculture in BC.  The first thing owners often try is simply not using the land.  After a number of years, the owner will argue that this land has not been farmed for a long time, so taking it out of the ALR won’t have any net impact on agriculture.  To accelerate the process, the owner may try to degrade the agricultural value of the land.  Then the owner can argue that the land isn’t suitable for agriculture anyhow, and should be taken out of the ALR.  A performance bond won’t do anything to stop owners from not using their land or making it available to farmers.  However, it can reduce the incentive to degrade the land, if the bond is forfeit should the land actually come out of the ALR.  The cost of the owner’s effort to accelerate the exclusion is higher, reducing the likelihood owners will make such choices.

Providing land owners with greater flexibility is generally a good thing.  However, we in British Columbia believe that protecting farmland is in the public interest.  I hope we can learn from our own past experience and from elsewhere to ensure these changes do in fact protect farmland.  I think that a performance bond for uses that degrade agricultural land is one way of doing so.