The Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, as supporters whooped it up in a 100-year-old barn on Westham Island, Delta. Everyone was justly proud of the success and history of their community organization, an experiment in cooperation between farmers and environmentalists.
The Trust is a unique, local solution to what seemed like intractable problems—how to keep farms productive while fostering their value as critical wildlife habitat in the Fraser delta.
The Trust was born at a time of community strife, with conservationists pitted against developers in an attempt to slow the tide of land use change. Those attending initial meetings where the idea of the Trust developed had a common interest in ensuring the future of farmland in the Fraser delta. It was a leap of faith for all involved, however, as the road to the meeting had been an extremely rocky one.
In the 1980s, farmers in Delta were facing an uncertain future. This once fertile and productive region was threatened by government policies that sidelined its agricultural heritage. Four thousand acres were expropriated during the 1960s as back-up for the Roberts Bank port and for the rail right of way, then leased back to farmers on short-term contracts. Rail lines, highways and hydro lines criss-crossed fields, cutting up properties into unmanageable portions.
The neighbouring municipality of Richmond began developing land for housing in the 1960s, fueling speculation in Delta and pushing the price of farmland sky high. Developers purchased land and left it unfarmed, eroding the land base for active farmers who need acreage for crop rotations. Farm taxes were pushed much higher than other jurisdictions, and some farmers began to cash out their investment to fund retirement. Agriculture, Delta’s largest industry, was struggling.
Meanwhile, naturalists and duck hunters were well aware of the importance of the delta to migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, as a key stopover on the Pacific Flyway, and were becoming deeply concerned at the accelerating loss of habitat. Birdwatchers knew the extraordinary diversity of birds that used the delta fields and marshes, from snow geese to short-eared owls, and were hoping to see the area recognized under the United Nations’ Ramsar designation as a wetland of international importance.
In 1988, the provincial Socred government passed an order-in-council allowing golf courses as a permitted use on farmland. This seemingly innocuous act caused a firestorm of protest, once it was realized that this was the thin edge of the wedge for land development. At one time, the farmland around Boundary Bay, in the heart of Delta, was optioned for 44 golf courses.
Although only a handful of these made it to the public hearing process, one of them resulted in a Supreme Court challenge by the Boundary Bay Conservation Committee, arguing to protect the farmland and habitat. The Boundary Bay uplands are famous for their large number of wintering hawks, owls, and harriers, many of which eat voles and mice. Placard-waving supporters made for good media coverage, with their slogans: “Voles don’t eat golf balls.”
Shortly afterwards came the dramatic public hearing into the Tsawwassen Development Ltd.'s (TDL) housing and golf course proposal for the Spetifore potato farm near Boundary Bay village. This was the longest public hearing in Canadian history, involving hundreds of people and a 100 hours of testimony over 25 evenings. When it was terminated, citizens ran their own public plebiscite and convinced Delta Council to turn down the rezoning bylaws.
The political fallout from this event soon changed the composition of the local council and the debate that had been sparked about the future of agriculture rumbled through to Victoria, ousting the Socred government.
During these years of turmoil, farmers and conservationists were often seen to be on opposing sides. The farmers were irritated by the citizens’ ignorance of the challenges faced by local growers, which included huge losses of crops to waterfowl. The conservationists could not understand why some farmers stated their opposition to golf courses but were in favour of TDL.
Fortunately, the controversies had highlighted the issues sufficiently that all levels of government had become interested, and a series of studies on wildlife, land use, and farming were initiated. Despite criticisms on both sides, these helped clarify the problems and possible solutions.
The golf course on Boundary Bay that had been challenged in the courts eventually went ahead with the owner required to pay into a conservation trust fund for habitat compensation. Wendy Jeske, then a Delta Council member, took a lead role in bringing farmers, conservationists, academics, and government staff to the table to work out the details for such a trust. The timing was perfect. The Boundary Bay Conservation Committee had, in 1992, just released a report, Ours to Preserve, describing the issues facing the Fraser delta landscape and possible solutions.
A key recommendation was to “cooperate with agricultural land owners to ensure a supply of upland wildlife habitat”, which included supplying oldfield habitat on a rotational leasing scheme, promoting and funding ecological farming techniques and stewardship schemes to counteract wildlife depredation, and promoting and funding the retention of hedgerows. Similarly, the Delta Farmers’ Institute was pushing for a trust to support agriculture and fund experimental programs providing forage for ducks and geese. The newly created Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, with volunteer board members nominated by the Delta Farmers’ Institute and the Boundary Bay Conservation Committee, promised to do all this and more.
Now, 20 years later, the Trust’s stewardship programs “integrate research, education and financial incentives to promote the sustainable use of agricultural land”. They include grassland set-asides, winter cover crops, hedgerow and grass margins, and laser leveling. Scientific integrity is ensured by collaboration with local universities. The Trust is funded by agricultural and environmental grants, private donors, and compensation funds and has generated enormous community support, illustrated by the turnout of 300 people at the fundraising barbecue in the barn.
The challenges facing Delta’s farmland and wildlife habitat in the next 20 years are enormous. The Trust shows that by working together as a community, surprising results become possible.