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.