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When Agriculture Meets Density

By Bernadette Greene

Before the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve in 1973, BC was losing farmland to urbanization at a rate of about 12,000 acres per year.  After the creation of the ALR, that number dropped to about 1,200 acres lost per year, and continued to decline in the decades after.

But farmers were never consulted about the decision to put their land in the ALR, and they were never compensated for the land value that was lost or the options that disappeared the instant the legislation was passed.  They were simply informed that this was their new reality, and that their sacrifice was needed in order to protect the food security of future generations.  

My parents, and other farm families in North Saanich and across BC, made that sacrifice for all of our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.  In many cases, life was a lot harder for those families as a result.  Many farmers were irate, and many became desperate.

So when I hear of plans or suggestions to put housing on ALR land, or see farmlands sit fallow while their speculator-owners wait for (and perhaps help elect) a sympathetic government, or when I watch mansions go up on farmland that a working farmer will now never be able to afford, I wonder about the family that paid that price back in 1973.  What would they have thought if they knew that their sacrifice would be for nothing?

And yet, as difficult as it was for those most affected, I believe designating and protecting land for the food security of future generations was the right thing to do, as long as that sacrifice is honoured and upheld in good faith.  Think of it as a covenant placed on the land in 1973, paid for by those hard-working farm families.  Undevelopable, just like our parks, which we’d never even think to give up.

Only 5% of BC’s land base is appropriate for agriculture.  That 5% stands between some level of food security for BC, and being totally dependent on imported food.

Some of the most fertile farmland in BC is on Vancouver Island, where it faces strong development pressure, and the farms of North Saanich are some of the most successful here.  According to the 2012 NS Agriculture Economic Development Strategy, the average annual gross per-farm receipts in North Saanich are more than double those of the average Island farm, and the agrifood sector is the 2nd highest labour market growth sector in the CRD.

But as our society moves away from our agrarian cultural background into a more urban one, fewer people understand the challenges of farming, and urban/rural tensions grow.  This is why the Regional Growth Strategy (RGS) Objectives include keeping urban settlement compact and protecting the integrity of rural communities.  It’s also why North Saanich is designated a rural, rural/residential community, outside of the Urban Containment Boundary (UCB), with residential growth limited to 5%. The intention is to reduce development pressures on the Saanich Peninsula and other rural areas “to ensure that they remain strongly rooted in the agricultural…land base” and require residential uses to be "of a form, density and character that support rural working landscapes".

This means that we not only need to protect agricultural land, we also need to protect nearby and uphill lands from development in order to avoid the problems caused by urban runoff, as well as neighbour and other conflicts.  The 2020 Annual Report of the Peninsula and Area Agriculture Commission (PAAC) states that:

“Much of the most productive fields are lower laying lands that flood as early as late summer unexpectedly due to urban runoff being diverted to the lower lying agricultural producing areas. Some vegetable crops were abandoned in field in early October 2020 as they were completely submerged. . .

It is with great frustration that many of our local farmers continue to suffer the ravages of urban runoff. . . With high intensity storms now occurring at all times of the year, the resulting flooding not only destroys existing crops it also often leaves behind traces of various pollutants including oils, antifreeze, tire rubber and other urban waste. . .

Action is needed in the strongest of terms, not just more empty rhetoric. If Council wants farming to continue in this area it sure seems that they are doing their very best to drown this industry, both literally and figuratively. . .

If our local elected representatives truly want agriculture to continue [on] the Peninsula, they should do something and do it now. We are literally on our knees begging for substantive action.”

Urban runoff is only one of many challenges farmers face.  Our daughter has just spent the last three days handpicking and vacuuming up thousands of the coreopsis beetles that have descended on her flower farm (on borrowed land – common for new farmers) and others in the region.  If left unchecked, they will decimate her 400 dahlia plants, then move on to other crops. 

If a farmer is lucky enough to find land that has decent soil, drains well, isn’t rocky, isn’t shaded, has no tree roots to compete for nutrients, and gets enough rain and sun, and if they can afford that land, it’s possible they may have a chance to make a modest living.  The challenges are not over however - many more await, and most of them are things over which the farmer has little or no control.

Too much cold, not enough cold, a late frost early in the season, an early frost late in the season, too much rain, not enough rain, not enough sun, scorching heat, a growing season that never actually warms up enough to ripen the crop, hail, strong winds that destroy greenhouses or flatten crops, or a blizzard like that of ’96 which crushed half my family’s greenhouses, and others in the area.

Deer, geese, raccoons, squirrels, rats, mice, rabbits, crows, all manner of small birds that scratch out expensive seed, dogs, cats, slugs, snails, insects, wireworms, nematodes, caterpillars, viruses, blights and other diseases, people – all of these creatures can impact, steal or destroy crops.  

And let’s not forget the government regulations and policies that affect the ability to farm, things like regulating burning, water use, and manure management, or that the cost of almost all products related to agriculture, from mulches to machinery, has skyrocketed over the past year.

But, let’s imagine that after all that, through a lot of hard work, skill, knowledge, and luck, our intrepid farmer has managed to produce a saleable crop.  If they can find the labour to harvest it, they now bring it to market, where other problems may await:  there is a glut of their crop, and prices are low, or they are competing with heavily subsidized farmers.  If they don’t find someone who is willing to pay them a decent price, they either have to settle for less than a living wage, or their crop simply goes bad – after all, it’s perishable.  

It is safe to say that no other business has as many challenges working against it as that of food production.  Other businesses have some of these challenges, but no other business has all of them.  And since 99.99% of us cannot produce our own food for reasons of skill, space, inclination or all three, and since 100% of us need it to live, we simply do not have the luxury of sitting by while farming disappears around us.

So, why do farmers do it?  For me as a market grower and flower farmer, I derived a lot of satisfaction from providing food, vegetable plants, and flowers for my community. It was gratifying knowing that many people were sitting down to meals made with the food I grew for them, to know that my flowers were brightening someone’s day, or that someone took pride in the vegetables they produced with plants I started for them.  

It’s challenging and meaningful work, with opportunities to grow in one’s skills and knowledge over a lifetime, with tangible, visible results. If one enjoys being outside doing physical work, nurturing new life, feeling deeply connected with the cycles of the seasons, working from home and being one’s own boss, it’s a great life despite the uncertainties.  And there’s something miraculous about planting seeds and nurturing them as they grow – I never, ever tire of it.

Demand for local food continues to increase year after year, with, not surprisingly, unprecedented demand during 2020 partly due to factors related to COVID.  The empty supermarket shelves, higher prices, concerns about exposure to crowds in stores and issues at the border highlight our relative vulnerability when relying on the larger-scale imported food industry, and underscore the advantages of the local food system.

To achieve food security, we’ll need to figure out creative ways for new and emerging farmers to get on the land – part of that solution will have to include a non-negotiable attitude towards farmland.   We need to ensure that development doesn’t threaten agricultural and adjacent lands.  Keeping the Urban Containment Boundary out of North Saanich is a good start.

Our OCP must reflect these values.  According to the district’s recent survey of Urgent Priorities, the majority of NS residents agree.  For all of our sakes, and those of generations to come, let’s hope our Council listens.

Bernadette is a fifth-generation grower.

Further reading:

Please note that the information about Sandown and Woodwynn Farm is somewhat dated and inaccurate



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