Marijuana greenhouses, wineries and monster houses are eroding BC’s already limited capacity to feed itself.
AS NATHALIE CHAMBERS DESCRIBES the onslaught of non-farming uses chewing away at BC’s agricultural land, from cannabis production to industrial parking lots, she points to her particular bugbear—huge houses, surrounded by acres of formerly productive farmland. “They are like smallpox. Carbuncles on farmland. We need requirements on house sizes right away,” she said, singling out one home, now surrounded by fill, built on previously fertile Blenkinsop Valley farmland.
Soaring costs of farmland—sparked by interest from wealthy mansion-builders or consortiums hoping to cash in on the legalization of recreational marijuana coming in August—means genuine farmers are being priced out of the market, say groups that are asking the Province to step in to protect the Agricultural Land Reserve which encompasses about five percent of the land in BC.
“We are the most food insecure province in Canada and we are denying farmers access to the land,” said Chambers, operator of Madrona Farm and co-chair of the Farmland Protection Coalition.
Lower Mainland areas, such as Richmond, are scrambling to control monster homes of more than 10,000 square feet, built on ALR land, but the problem on Southern Vancouver Island is often big houses, built on two-hectare (five-acre) lots, which are then lost to food production. Sometimes, by growing a token amount, owners take advantage of lower property taxes on farmland.
Martin Collins, Agricultural Land Commission director of policy and planning, said people who want to build mansions gravitate towards the ALR. “Scale matters, but, now, proliferation is more of a problem—the numbers of them. Our regulation has been too permissive, I think,” he said.
Also, Collins pointed out, it is local councils which decide whether a second dwelling for farm help can be built on ALR properties. “Local governments have had a very elastic perspective about that and if the landowner says they need a building for farm help, they give it to them even when they are doing a minimal amount of farming on the property,” he said.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said she has been hearing about ALR problems since taking over the portfolio, which is why she has appointed an advisory committee that will travel the province looking for ideas on how to better protect the ALR.
The committee, which will look at pressures for non-agricultural use, ALR resilience, and the two-zone system brought in by the former Liberal government, will make interim recommendations to Popham this spring.
“Creating the ALR was an amazing decision made in the 1970s to protect BC’s farmland, but we couldn’t have foreseen some of the current pressures, like mega mansions and cannabis production as examples, that would shape and influence the land in the ALR today,” Popham said in an emailed response to questions from Focus.
“We have been clear in our belief that land in the ALR should be used for farming and we are committed to food security for our province.”
THE FORCES LINED UP AGAINST SUCH GOALS are impressive, and complications abound. Farmers, for instance, are finding it difficult to turn down purchase offers financially far beyond what they would have once expected to receive for agricultural land.
By last September, Delta alone had received 35 applications from companies looking to grow marijuana in the ALR, and other municipalities are also reporting interest from companies wanting to convert greenhouses from tomatoes and cucumbers to marijuana.
In Central Saanich, Evergreen Medicinal Supply is hoping to build marijuana greenhouses on the 40-acre Stanhope Dairy Farm, while in Saanich a former horse boarding facility on Oldfield Road has been bought by a company which is converting the barn and has applied for a building permit for greenhouses.
When it was announced recently that the high-profile Woodwynn Farm on West Saanich Road was going on the market, there were rumoured inquiries from people interested in cannabis cultivation.
“Any piece of land in the district now is fair game,” said Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor, whose council is asking the provincial government for a six-month moratorium on the use of agricultural land for the production of cannabis, to allow for consultations with municipalities, farmers and the industry.
Currently, municipal hands are tied by a 2015 decision by the former Liberal government that licensed marijuana grow operations should be allowed on ALR land and that municipalities should not be allowed to pass bylaws prohibiting cannabis farms.
“The decision rests entirely with the Province and we would like them to go back and look at it,” said Windsor, who believes there was inadequate consultation before the rule was brought in. “If someone puts in a building permit application and it meets all the requirements for greenhouses, we pretty well have to issue it,” Windsor said.
Communities such as Central Saanich, with large swathes of ALR land, are particularly attractive to cannabis growers. Following federal rule changes earlier this year, the crop no longer has to be grown in a bunker with plants stored in a high-security vault. Instead, marijuana can now be grown in greenhouses, provided there is heavy security.
Many believe industrial, not agricultural land, should be used for marijuana cultivation, and, on the Saanich Peninsula, the newly-formed Citizens Protecting Agricultural Land (CPAL) has collected more than 1000 signatures on a petition asking the Province to reverse the 2015 legislation allowing ALR land to be used for grow-ops. “Marijuana grow-ops should not be permitted on land in the ALR because they destroy the agricultural value of the land and its potential to produce food,” says the petition.
CPAL spokesman Ken Marriette said the group wants to tackle the gold-rush attitude and stop factory-like marijuana production facilities, with concrete-floored greenhouses, from destroying farmland. “It’s just awful. Put it on non-farmland,” Marriette said. “We don’t want the next generations of British Columbians to have to rely on other countries for our food crops.”
JoAnne Nelson, one of the petition organizers, said the concept is alarming. “People have finally found a way to monetize agricultural land and it’s going to blow away the other uses. You are talking consortiums of investors…It’s a movement that is threatening the entire rural community,” she said.
ON THE LOWER MAINLAND, another threat comes in the shape of wineries, with a token vineyard and buildings catering to weddings and meetings, a trend ALR director Collins describes as Disneyfication. “There’s a huge demand for these spaces, so you get it flowing into the ALR and turning these beautiful fields into parking lots,” he said.
The winery situation is not so critical on Vancouver Island, where producers can grow wine-producing grapes, but regulations tying production and retailing need to be tightened, Collins said. The regulations are too permissive and have been eroded over the decades, he said. “This isn’t real agriculture. It’s capital finding a place to land. We need to find a way to prevent this loose money from landing in the ALR,” said Collins, who is cautiously optimistic the NDP government will make changes. “Maybe they will be as innovative as they were in 1972, but, like all politicians, they will smell the wind,” he said.
Kent Mullinix, director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said government must acknowledge that agricultural land is a precious, non-renewable resource that all mankind relies upon. Climate change means arable land is already being lost at an extraordinary rate, but agriculture has been economically marginalized and farmers can’t compete with interests such as development and marijuana, Mullinix said. That means the Province needs to decommodify agricultural land through policy and regulation, he said.
“A good place to start is to review the tax structure that gives breaks to people who own ALR land and really don’t farm it. The speculative value, the value from developing agricultural land and taking it out of agriculture, needs to be taxed away,” he said, suggesting an agricultural land bank could also be considered.
Mullinix, whose department is about to release a white paper on revitalizing the ALR, believes ALR land should be used only for food production, and he would like to see government restrict farmland ownership to trained farmers—likely resulting in the price of farmland plummeting.
“That would mean big money would go somewhere else,” he said. “We have got to get real. We can no longer allow a bunch of capitalist cowboys to run roughshod over the natural resources and the ecosystems that all our lives, livelihoods and—literally—happiness rely upon,” he said.
People need to understand that the importance of the issue transcends food and agriculture, Mullinix said. “This is really about how we are going to move through the rest of the 21st century with all the sustainability challenges the next generation will face and generations after that. We will either set things up now so they will stand a chance or we won’t.”
The BC government has posted a discussion paper and an online survey at https://engage.gov.bc.ca/agriculturallandreserve.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist specializing in the environment, First Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith.
Edited by Judith Lavoie