British Columbia Agriculture Minister Lana Popham says the government introduced regulatory changes this week that will allow “some more residential flexibility” in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The ALR, she noted, is “always a hot topic, and you basically need a suit of armor any time you address any changes that are needed.”
Popham said the new rule, to take effect Dec. 31, will streamline approval for a small secondary residence in the reserve. “This can be used to house farm labour, it can be an agri-tourism accommodation, you can rent it out for supplemental income. Under the previous government only family members were allowed to have this space on the ALR parcel, most commonly in a mobile home. We’ve opened that up to folks outside the family and we’ve expanded the type of dwelling from mobile homes.”
Popham said permission will still be required from local governments or First Nations governments “but there will be no applications to the Agricultural Land Commission.” She said it could be a secondary residence “that looks like a garden suite,” a guest house or a manufactured home.
“Having an option opens up new doors to families,” Popham said. “I also think one of the things we heard most from new farmers is that they didn’t have anywhere to live – they could lease some land, but they’d have to travel and commute to that land in order to farm it as a business.”
Popham was the guest speaker Friday during a Zoom meeting hosted by the Surrey Board of Trade concerning the state of the agriculture industry in B.C., and in Surrey in particular. Anita Huberman, CEO of the board, noted that Surrey’s land base is one-third agricultural.
Popham noted that the past 16 months have been “incredibly difficult for everyone” on account of the pandemic and recent heat wave. “There is no ignoring the issue of how climate is affecting our agriculture sector,” she said. “Of course we have fires right now that are threatening some agricultural businesses. It’s quite sad.”
She said B.C. brings in about 12,000 temporary foreign workers, mostly from Mexico, to work local farms, greenhouses and other agricultural businesses. “We’d like to see more domestic labour and we would like to be able to see agri-tech support different types of labour, labour that starts with technology.”
Popham said 150 agri-tech companies are already operating in B.C. One features a robot strawberry harvester here in Surrey, she noted, “which finds ripe strawberries, picks them, doesn’t damage the fruit, doesn’t damage the plant and is easier on everybody’s backs. So this type of technology really helps us address some of the labour shortages that we’re seeing in agriculture.”
Drones being used in vineyards can detect disease faster than the human eye can,” she added. “We see dairies that are using agri-tech to take the temperature of their cows to address any health issues before they become serious.”
She said Surrey has one of the first of B.C.’s 12 “food hubs,” Plenty & Grace Food Hub & Innovation Centre in South Surrey, that put shared-use processing facilities into communities where food entrepreneurs can access “cutting-edge” equipment around the clock, eliminating barriers to small businesses that are starting up.
“The products that are coming out of these food hubs are incredible,” Popham said.
Meantime, in February Popham sent a stern letter to the City of Surrey for dissolving the city’s agriculture and food policy advisory committee. “I am disappointed that the city leadership did not seek dialogue nor public input prior to the planned committee re-assignment,” she wrote in a letter to Surrey council on Feb. 23.
“Please be reminded that municipalities with the intention to restrict or prohibit agriculture within a farming area may need to become ‘regulated’ under Section 553 of the Local Government Act,” she warned.
Asked about this Friday, Popham said she thinks it was “maybe a little but surprising” that she weighed in on the issue, “but the importance of agriculture to our province is enormous, it’s a huge economic generator.”
“Surrey does have a third of its property in the ALR so you can’t, in my view, you can’t really operate Surrey without acknowledging agriculture and so the reason why I weighed in is because I don’t know of any community, really, that hasn’t realized that food security is one of the biggest issues that we’re going to face around the globe and so it just seemed like a really bad decision.”
Popham said decisions concerning the ALR, business proposals and “figuring out the best way to be the wind at the back of entrepreneurs, it all has to go hand-in-hand, agriculture can’t stand alone. I think that’s really what the message was when the committee got disbanded – is that agriculture is on its own, and agriculture runs through the veins of every community.”