North Saanich councillors showed a rare level of unanimity during the March 7 regular council meeting around the Sandown lands when they (minus the absent Coun. Patricia Pearson) approved $75,000 in additional funding to the Circular Food and Farm Society for the continued operation of the lands. But the discussion also pointed to broader questions facing the society in the long term.
The municipality chose the society in late 2020 following a long selection process to supply a range of programming and services on 83 acres of municipal-owned land off Glamorgan Road that was once part of a horse racing track.
The location, broadly known as the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture, advertises itself as a departure from industrialized, production-focused agriculture in pursuing three broad goals: stewardship of biodiversity, fostering and supporting thriving regenerative growers, and inspiring community awareness through community education, programs and gardens.
The participation of the society in the selection process and its eventual selection sparked no small measure of opposition from inside and outside council chambers as critics questioned the proposed farming approach, not to mention finances. While some of these issues briefly re-surfaced during this month’s meeting, the reaction of councillors to the society’s annual presentation was mostly favourable.
“We have got a very good venture here,” said Coun. Celia Stock. “These are all fantastic projects.”
Brett Smyth, himself a farmer and a long-time critic of the centre, also praised the centre’s various activities, saying they fill him with more optimism about the direction of the centre.
He said earlier that regenerative farming is not new but a different way of farming. “It has great value, it has great potential, but it will take time,” he said. And because he knows that it will take time, he is willing to invest additional money, at least in 2023. “I’m going to take some shtick from people in the farming community and others for supporting this, but I will support it.”
Smyth’s support also appeared to have swayed Coun. Jack McClintock, another long-time critic. “I was not in favour of supporting this motion,” he said during one point of his remarks. “But when it comes to agriculture, I do defer to the knowledge of my colleague and hearing him speak certainly persuaded me that perhaps there is a little bit of a window.”
The additional support for the centre only applies for 2023 and is not part of the original operating agreement between the centre and the municipality, running until Dec. 31, 2030. Its terms include three years of direct financial support with 2022 being the third and final year to the tune of $125,000.
Stephanie Munro, North Saanich’s director of financial services, said the funding commitment found in agreement neither precludes nor obliges the municipality to supply additional funding. This said, her staff report said the society has achieved what she called “success in meeting the objectives identified in the operational plan contained in the agreement.”
They include the establishment of a farm and food entrepreneurs program, regeneration of soil and removal of invasive species, involving the community in local food production and education, maintenance of the orchard, provision of community gardens and establishment of water and soil sampling programs in partnership with UVic.
While councillors generally supported the direction of the centre, Smyth called on the society to supply additional information about the revenues earned by the farm and food entrepreneurs operating out of the centre to give the public additional comfort.
Steve Duck, the society’s director for business operations, said the society would do so in the future. “In the first year, they had a lot of challenges with invasive (plants) and beetles and compact soil,” he said. “So the relative income would be a deficit at this point in terms of what they have invested in time and money themselves.”
Another question facing the society concerns future capital investments. The society’s 2022-2027 budget projects capital expenses of $289,740 (including $250,000 for buildings) in 2022, $252,639 in 2023 and $171,267 in 2024. Speaking to the 2022 figures, Duck acknowledged that funding will have to be worked out, following a question from Orr, while pointing out the longevity of those assets will outlast the length of the current agreement.
Overall, Orr summed up council’s general sentiment when he said the centre is “largely heading in the right direction” on most files. But he also used the discussion around the additional funding request (which will come from the municipality’s agricultural reserve fund) to speak of the society’s financial obligations.
“It’s still a bit of a stretch for the municipality because we are not seeing revenue come back to offset that investment,” he said. “Where that goes in the future will be up to you folks (the society) to demonstrate the value of the contribution.”
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