Food and Drink 

Keeping the farm but not the farmers

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A collective cheer went up last week when the Agricultural Land Commission refused to remove from the Agricultural Land Reserve 441 hectares (1,110 acres) on Barnston Island in the Fraser River. After all the media brouhaha and public meetings, the commission’s South Coast Panel members were unanimous in their decision.

They concluded that the applicants’ claim that the Greater Vancouver Regional District needed more industrial land was as hollow as an old pumpkin. Besides, even if there was huge demand for more industrial sites in the Lower Mainland, an application for removing farmland from the land reserve, for industrial or other uses, has to come from government, not individual property owners.

Thankfully, it’s not as if a bunch of farmers can get together and say, our area needs a huge industrial park or zillions more houses, so please, sir, could we have our farms removed from the ALR and make ourselves a whack of money with the new zoning so we can retire.

No, there are a few more hurdles to retirement than that.

While people have been arguing for years over how effective the ALR system is in preserving farmland, especially in light of questionable decisions like last year’s removal of 170-some hectares near Abbotsford, Jordan Sturdy thinks that in a place like Pemberton Valley – a floodplain with rich soil – nobody argues about the value of conserving farmland. In fact, the ALR is one of the valley’s primary assets.

But another fundamental issue challenges working farms.

"I think that we have fairly good protection for farmland. What we don’t have protection for is farmers – it’s the human capital that I am worried about," he says.

Likely to the surprise of the organizers, that was the focus of a presentation Jordan made to the Healthy Eating Forum in Whistler. Aimed at building on the healthy eating/active living initiatives in the area, the June event attracted everyone from food suppliers to health and education officials.

Jordan figured it was a good opportunity to get people thinking about, never mind the healthy eating choices, rather, who’s going to be minding the farm and growing those so-called healthy choices with all the impinging challenges they face?

First off, how tough is it to earn a living when North American food costs are so low and subsidies to industrial farmers so high that you have to sell a bunch of carrots from your labour-intensive family farm at the same price as a bunch in the local supermarket?

Then there’s the bigger question: what do we do when all the farmers are too old or too tired to do it in the dirt anymore? (The average age of farmers in the Pemberton area is in the mid-50s range.)

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