Pemberton farmers are speaking out against proposed legislation from the B.C. government that would see the province's farmland divided into two zones, allowing for non-agricultural uses such as oil and gas development to be considered in certain areas.
Victoria introduced a bill last month to split the province's Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) into two distinct zones, relaxing restrictions to farmland development in the zone comprising the Interior and B.C.'s North. The proposal sparked outrage from many of B.C.'s farmers and ranchers, who felt they were not adequately consulted, and even inspired a popular social media campaign that's seen hundreds posting 'farm selfies' in protest.
And while areas comprising Zone 1 under the new system, made up of valuable farmland in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley, Vancouver Island and the Okanagan Valley, will see few major changes, that hasn't stopped Spud Valley's farmers from standing up against the proposed bill.
"We are disappointed that you have not reached out to groups such as ours prior to now," read a March letter from the Pemberton Farmer's Institute addressed to ailing agricultural minister Pat Pimm, who was replaced April 11 by Norm Letnick, MLA for Kelowna-Lake Country.
"Such an omission does nothing to dispel the impression that this is a secret exercise intended to free up farmland for development," the letter continued. "Can you assure us that we have farmland to spare? Is our food system that secure?"
Doug and Jeanette Helmer, fourth-generation organic farmers who've operated a seed potato ranch since 1980, are wary of the proposed changes to the ALR and its long-term impacts on the Spud Valley's prime farmland.
"There's so little farmland in B.C. that we don't want to lose any of it," said Doug, a member of the Farmland Defence League of B.C. "It's the direction (the government) is going; everything is geared towards (liquefied natural gas) plants and gas production, getting the tar sands oil to the coast, everything they're doing is dependent on that."
With Pemberton playing host to a burgeoning number of new farmers, Jeanette is worried that divvying up B.C.'s productive land will make it harder for young people thinking about trying their hand at agriculture.
"(Pemberton farmers) are talking about how (the proposed changes) will make it so difficult for people to get their foot in the door farming. We're so reliant on having new young farmers like we have in this valley right now," she said. "If that land is going to be subdivided, (the price of B.C. farmland) would go up overnight, add another few zeroes and it would be worth millions of dollars and we wouldn't be able to farm."
Another Pemberton farmer who's up in arms over Bill 24 is Sarah McMillan, who has been growing in Spud Valley for seven years, and said with ongoing concerns over climate change and oil shortages, B.C.'s food supply should be protected now more than ever. She was also critical of Victoria's lack of support for small-scale organic farmers such as herself.
"For our style of farming — small-scale, mixed, organic — we've never really had any support (from the government), and the majority of the support we get is subsidized gas, and sometimes subsidized hydro," she said.
The legislation will turn over the fate of farmland located in Zone 2 to half a dozen panels, who will consider "economic, cultural and social values," "regional and community planning objectives" and other conditions prescribed by the cabinet in their decision-making process.
The bill has garnered criticism from a panel of soil experts who claim it would put a bulk of B.C.'s prime food-producing farmland at risk, and even prompted the B.C. Agricultural Council to withdraw its support for the changes two weeks after publicly endorsing Victoria's proposed overhaul.
Council members met with newly appointed minister Letnick Wednesday, April 23 in an effort to convince him to delay and amend the proposed legislation.
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