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Sound the ALRms

Changes to the way the Agricultural Land Reserve is managed worries some, pleases others

"On thing is abundantly clear, the world’s human population cannot live on imported food," wrote Wendell Berry in his 1995 book, Farming in the Global Community. "Some people somewhere are going to have to grow the food. And wherever food is grown, the growing of it will raise the same two questions: How do you preserve the land in use? And how do you preserve the people who use the land?

In British Columbia, "land" refers to the approximately 5 per cent of the total area that is actually suitable for agriculture. The rest of the province is too rocky, too steep, too wet, too high, or too dry to grow crops.

Almost 30 years ago Dave Barrett’s NDP government officially recognized the fragile and fragmented nature of this resource, the economic contribution agriculture makes to the province and especially rural areas, and the dangers of relying on food imports. At the time the province was losing an average of 6,000 hectares of land each year to various developments, commercial, industrial and residential.

B.C.’s Land Commission Act came into effect in April of 1973. A commission, appointed by the provincial government, established a special land use zone in partnership with local governments to protect B.C.’s dwindling supply of agricultural land in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

ALR areas were determined by the agricultural capability of the land, its current use, local zoning and public input. Some 23 of B.C.’s 28 regional districts had completed ALR plans by 1975, protecting the most important 5 per cent.

It wasn’t a popular Act at the time, limiting the types of activities that could take place on privately owned land. You were free to buy and sell, providing that it was your intention to farm the land. In theory, anyway.

Even the various provincial governments have had a few problems sticking to the letter of the ALR regulations, and over the years both they and the ALR committee have approved several non-farm uses within ALR boundaries: the Gloucester Industrial Estates in Langley; the Terra Nova proposal in Richmond; the Spetifore property in Delta, the Six Mile Ranch outside of Kamloops.

Nevertheless the ALR has continued to grow steadily over the past three decades.

Between 1974 and 2000, there have been 989 applications for inclusion into the ALR, increasing the area of protected farm land from 30,012.2 hectares to 129,683.1 hectares in 2000. During the same period there have only been 324 applications for exclusion. Most were granted, but only after they met the criteria specified by the Land Reserve Commission. Usually the requests for exclusion were downsized in the process, or the applicant agreed to provide something in exchange for the ruling, such as more land for the ALR.

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