Raking hay in the Fraser Valley: some of the secondary activities could take place on farmland province-wide.

B.C. VIEWS: Ruts in road to farmland changes

Agriculture minister tight-lipped on consultations over looser rules for business on ALR land

The month-long Agricultural Land Commission consultation closed Aug. 22, and the B.C. government is compiling the feedback received from a province-wide tour and invitation to comment.

I can’t tell you much about the official input. The consultation sessions were by invitation only, with no media allowed, and the submissions via website are also not public.

I reached Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick as he was traveling around B.C. with his camper van, conducting his own meetings with farmers. He’s not saying much either, except that a summary of the findings should be made public in September as the government considers new regulations.

The aim of this exercise is to consider relaxing rules around secondary farmland uses in the Interior, Kootenay and North regions, as well as food processing and retail sales of food and beverages on farmland. Also under consideration is allowing breweries and distilleries, as wine and cider production are now allowed, and relaxing rules to permit more off-farm products to be sold from farms.

Letnick defended the 30-day summer consultation as adequate. It’s based on 11 questions developed with staff, farm groups and local government. He’s also not counting how many emails were stacked up by proponents or critics.

“I’m not conducting a plebiscite,” Letnick said. “What I’m trying to do is come up with the best balance of recommendations to make to government that can hold their own based on the idea and the potential positive and negative consequences.”

NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham was more forthcoming. She was invited to the formal sessions, and also won’t talk about them directly. But she’s not backing away from her criticisms.

The government is proposing to bypass the Agricultural Land Commission for several kinds of decisions, including subdivision for family use or into properties of 160 acres or more.

“I think the general idea was that people trust the ALC to make that decision, and it should still go through the commission,” Popham said. “Actually the commission has been making those decisions anyway, and I think they’ve been quite fair when somebody applies.”

She said farmers also aren’t sold on the notion of easing the rules for secondary businesses.

“You will already find situations where there’s, let’s say a welding shop or something like that attached to somebody’s residence who lives on ALR land,” Popham said. “That sort of stuff has been allowed, but it’s always had to go through the ALC or some sort of process that’s been in place. This leaves that process out, and so I think that’s the problem people are having.”

She noted that non-farm activities have a way of growing until they become the main business.

A reader who attended the Kelowna session said even winery operators aren’t thrilled about the proposal to enlarge retail space and allow sales of wine or beer not made on site. He said “not one” participant there liked the idea of increasing industrial activity such as food processing or retailing. And he agreed with Popham that the ALC is doing a good job with subdivision applications.

Popham also clarified the situation with the leased craft gin distillery on her own Vancouver Island farm. It started as a winery, and the conversion needed only local government approval because the production facility was already considered and taxed as light industrial.

Victoria Gin has been a model for the government’s push to allow distilleries, breweries or meaderies on farmland. Given the B.C. Liberals’ love of liberalized liquor, I expect that change to go through.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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