Anne Murray: Farmland loss remains critical issue in B.C.’s Lower Mainland

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      From the air, it becomes obvious why only about four percent of B.C. is arable land. Jagged peaks, snow-capped ranges, and steep-sided valleys cover much of the province. The Lower Mainland is one of just a few agricultural areas within the mountainous landscape that also has the right rainfall and temperature for consistent crop production. Arable land is essential for growing our own food, giving us control over quality and standards, and preventing reliance on distant sources and expensive transportation. Why then is this important resource not given its true value? Farmland should be used for growing a stable, healthy food supply, yet it is being eroded daily by all kinds of other development.

      This is not a new problem. The Agricultural Land Reserve was created in 1973 by an NDP government to prevent the rapid loss of farmland in the province. For the last few decades the ALR has stemmed the flow, but not without constant battles. Anyone who was involved in farmland protection issues through the ’80s and ’90s will remember struggles over Fantasy Gardens and Terra Nova in Richmond, the Delta golf courses around Boundary Bay, Spetifore Farm, Colony Farm, Surrey Bend, and Six Mile Ranch. The Socred government crumbled under public disgust over loss of farmland and under-the-table deals. Mike Harcourt’s first action in government was to repeal an order-in-council that allowed golf courses as an outright use of farmland.

      Farmland is still disappearing rapidly, much of it in Delta. The South Fraser Perimeter Road and associated infrastructure is chewing up hundreds of acres of land between Highway 17 and Burns Bog, so that container trucks, many of them bringing imported vegetables, can travel from port to market. The economy of it is contradictory: destroy fields that grew peas, cauliflower, corn, strawberries, and potatoes in order to transport the same food, grown thousands of miles away. With the cost of fuel and externalities such as ecosystem loss and the carbon footprint factored in, this is hardly cheap food. According to well-known farmland advocate, Richmond councillor Harold Steves, where we once grew 86 percent of our food, we are now down to half that amount. Furthermore, port development required for ships carrying the food that we no longer have space to grow is sprawling across the sensitive Fraser estuary ecosystem, impacting migrating salmon, endangered orcas, and other marine life.

      The Tsawwassen First Nation successfully negotiated the first urban treaty in B.C. a couple of years ago, gaining additional land adjacent to their original reserve on Roberts Bank. They have plans for shopping malls, additional housing, and industrial estates in the coming years, on what is diked farmland. Close by, a golf course has been allowed to expand onto neighbouring fields and build a large condominium complex, disconnected from the main town centre of Tsawwassen. Industrial complexes are springing up like mushrooms along the Fraser River.

      So it comes as no surprise that the future of the Spetifore Farm in Tsawwassen (now called Southlands), the site of so much controversy in the late 1980s, is once again the subject of intense debate. A municipally-designated committee has been considering options, including the removal of the agricultural zoning of the farm, as part of the Tsawwassen Area Plan review. The public were consulted through open houses, evening meetings, on-line surveys, and finally a mail-in survey. The process was dogged by fiascos (the on-line survey automatically changed “no development” answers to “pro-development” ones) but the mailed survey finally showed over 60 percent in favour of retaining the agricultural designation. In 1990, the vote was 90% in favour, but that came after three weeks of the longest public hearing in Canadian history, when everyone had a chance to see and hear all the arguments for and against farmland protection. With the TAP public hearing coming up, we may be in for a repeat of that process.

      Meanwhile, if you want to see for yourself the value of local farming in the delta, come on down to Westham Island on September 11 for the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust’s A Day at the Farm, a fun day for all the family.

      Anne Murray is a naturalist and the author of two books on Lower Mainland nature and ecological history: Tracing Our Past: A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay and A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay.

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      8 Comments

      Shepsil

      Sep 3, 2010 at 3:35pm

      Delta can be beautiful to live in. Great views, some wide open expanses of land and water, including Burns Bog. But the pressures from land owners, Tsawwassen 1st Nations and Governments of all levels wanting to enrich themselves from this land is nothing but pure greed!

      Ann so rightly points out what is happening in a physical sense. That the farmland should be used for food production exclusively, is lost on those politicians who have bent to the will of the shipping industry, the Chinese Gov't (cheap goods) and local developers.

      That Vancouver is already bursting at the seams with its own developments, including its' own shipping ports, bears mentioning. But many in the know, feel that once Delta Port is fully expanded, much of Vancouver's ports will be craftily dealt away to those favoured by the Gov't of the day. Downtown Vancouver alone has over 500 acres of waterfront land being used by the ports and their clients. A massive chunk of "undeveloped" waterfront land worth billions of dollars.

      With the changes we have seen in the last five years, most of us know that the farmland left will be mostly under pavement in another 20 years. Don't believe it, come and see what is happening right now between North Delta and Delta Port. We are going thru a massive pave over of farmland for new truck highways and container parks.

      Last, but not least, the designation of agricultural land for golf courses and riding stables is just a nice holding stage before more buildings and roads are put in place. So come and see whats left out here. We hope we can stop all the current port expansion plans, but it is an uphill battle.

      Roger Emsley

      Sep 3, 2010 at 6:51pm

      The reality is that the South Fraser Perimeter Road is not for Port Container trucks - it is all about Government making it easier for developers to industrialize land adjacent to SFPR. SFPR has been called the road to nowhere. The vast majority of Port trucks - as the government now admits - will continue to use the Massey tunnel.

      Bernadette Keenan

      Sep 3, 2010 at 10:00pm

      Very well put Anne. Exactly what are we thinking in terms of Food Security when we pave over such wonderful Farmland. So if you prefer Farms not Freeways sign up with our Sand For Shirley Campaign at one of the upcoming events or check out the online petition.

      http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/sand-for-shirley/
      BernadetteK

      Dave Ashton

      Sep 3, 2010 at 11:03pm

      We are experiencing "peak oil" Now is the time to rid ourselves of this dependence. The next two decades will be a crucial time because it is our opportunity to transition to a sustainable life style of alternative energies and food security, while the existing infrastructure, which is heavily reliant upon oil, remains intact. After that, it will be too late.

      Camero409

      Sep 4, 2010 at 7:30am

      Greed, greed, greed, lies, lies, lies=Government & Developers.

      Sonia

      Sep 4, 2010 at 7:42am

      Roger you are so correct regarding SFPR being a land grab. Out in Surrey, SFPR was sold as getting traffic off roads too. I knew it wouldn't either. Surrey had designated roads that the Whalley community thought SFPR would get trucks off as designated truck routes.

      Road will go directly to Barnston Island (bridge will be needed to cross) which developers bought up cheap farmland and have been trying different options like golf courses and industrial zoning and saying they will build the bridge to cross as part of their plan.

      Food security has to become Canada's main focus, not importing cheap (sometimes tainted) goods from other countries. I understand the need for trade, but when you see all the empty containers that are not shipped back with Canadian goods and stockpiling along River Road and current Perimeter Road in Surrey, what are these countries importing from Canada?

      Gloria

      Sep 6, 2010 at 4:58pm

      You are so right Anne.

      Another tragedy is, the flooding of the, most prime farm land in Canada. The site C dam, in the beautiful Peace area, will destroy the farms, in that flooded area. There is going to be a, global food shortage, this has already begun. I am afraid in BC, money comes before food crops. So do, lakes, rivers, streams, land and our coastal sea waters, and our wildlife. Problem is, when all the province is polluted, the money will then have to be , eat as food.

      MIke grant

      Sep 7, 2010 at 4:43am

      Interesting! I was sitting in a coffee shop the other day listening to a couple of developers describe how easy it is now to skim over environmental assessments when developing farmland in Vancouver. It seems our government is blind to the coming food crisis its going to be pretty hard eating warehouses now isn't it.