Local farmers grow a range of crops, and, at this time of year, the easiest crop to sell is pumpkins. There are fields and fields of them.
Farmers go all out to attract residents from nearby subdivisions and from Vancouver, 20 minutes north, to farm stands.
It’s a pleasant place to live. In the early morning, we hear the gentle hum of tractors, and although the yellow leaves are falling fast, there are still a few bees buzzing as they pollinate autumn crops.
Industry would love to build on Bill McKinney’s long, straight rows of potatoes. They’d they’d love to build on Bob Wright’s zucchini patch and they’d love to build on Maria De Putter’s horse field.What’s standing in their way? The Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
The ALR was created through legislation in 1973 to protect valuable farmland, about five per cent of British Columbia’s land base.
Although ALR land in Metro Vancouver is, for the most part, Class 1 and 2 with the highest capacity for growing food, it’s seen as a land bank for development. Developers are continually coming up with ways to have land removed and they’re often successful.
In the last 20 years, in the South Slough area of Richmond, we’ve seen the most fertile farmland in the province removed for 1960s style sprawling one and two-story shopping malls, factories, warehouses and office buildings.
Now industry claims Metro Vancouver faces a serious shortage of vacant industrial land.
A forecast and analysis released by the National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (NAOIP) Vancouver chapter and a recent speech by Robin Silvester, CEO of Port Metro Vancouver, confirms the worst: within 11 years, Metro Vancouver will run out of industrial land.
Given that agriculture is also an industry, is this necessary?
“There’s no question, we’re running out of undeveloped industrial land,” said Helmut Pastrick, Central 1 Credit Union chief economist. “But there are far better, more efficient options than using ALR Land.”
Drive or cycle around industrial parks such as Ironwood in the South Slough area, and you’ll see that about fifty per cent of the buildings are for sale or lease.
“This already developed industrial land could be used much more efficiently,” Pastrick said.
Michael Goldberg, retired dean of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business, agrees.
“Half a dozen years ago, Vancouver feared downtown condo development would lead to a shortage of office space,” said Goldberg.
“The City of Vancouver banned condos from the core in favour of office space and most importantly significantly raised allowable densities.”
The result was a major increase in supply.
“As industrial land prices continue to increase through diminishing supply and rising demand, at some point, we will have to move to multi-storey industrial buildings to offset the high land costs,” said Goldberg.
“Fortunately, most industrial zones already permit higher density so this transition should be far easier and smoother than has been the case for residential densification,” Goldberg said.
Space for industrial activities can be significantly increased through densification while leaving farmland for its highest and best use.
A quick look at what’s for lease and for sale in a small industrial area in Richmond.
When residential, commercial and industrial development occurs on or beside farmland and fields, we lose hedgerows, which may include blackberries and wild flowers, and wetlands including sloughs.
This takes away habitat and food sources for pollinator species such as insects, bees, birds and butterflies, as well as for frogs and bats.
Remaining wildlife also face a new problem. Once homes and commercial buildings are ready for occupancy, we’re seeing a disturbing trend in the South Slough area. New owners are over-lighting their property causing light pollution.
Light pollution is excessive use of artificial light. It includes unnecessary bright lights which trespass onto adjoining properties and cause glare and sky glow which brightens the night sky. The cause is poorly designed lighting and it’s harmful wildlife, humans and our climate.
Why do property owners install these types of lights?
Farm areas tend to be darker at night. Owners of homes and industrial parks alongside farms typically place excessive lighting on building exteriors believing this will stop crime.
The has serious consequences for us. In one summer season, a colony of 150 brown bats can eat 38,000 cucumber beetles, 16,000 June bugs, 19,000 stinkbugs and 50,000 leafhoppers, according to the BC Ministry of Environment.
The City should bring in a light pollution abatement bylaw which provides standards for lighting including shielded fixtures and downward aiming lights. Other local municipalities such as Delta and Saanich have implement bylaws.
In the long term, they save property owners and local governments money in energy costs, they lower our carbon footprint and they help bring back wildlife.
Two weeks ago, large trucks drove along the narrow, winding country road in our neighbourhood, turned into a south slough farm field and illegally dumped loads of construction waste on prime farmland at the end of No. 4 Road.
Contractors charge as much as $650 a truckload to haul construction waste. A large part of this goes to dump fees at landfills – and there are fewer landfills that will take construction waste.
Local farmers estimate that tenants or new owners would have likely gotten about $200 a truckload, which adds up to tens of thousands of dollars for filling a field with construction waste and then covering it over with dirt.
This isn’t the first time this has happened in our neighbourhood and it’s just one of many examples of increasing urban encroachment on farmland.
In the last 30 years Metro Vancouver’s population has increased 70 per cent to 2,470,289 from 1,445,939 in a land-constrained area with the Pacific Ocean to the west, the North Short Mountains and the U.S. border to the south.
Residents and newcomers have headed east to more rural areas or to Richmond, just 20 minutes south on Lulu Island.
Here, we’ve seen fertile farm fields alongside Fraser River estuaries paved over for large-lot detached residential sub-divisions, massive strip malls, car dealerships, industrial parks, gravel pits, commercial nurseries, soil fill operations, parking lots, golf courses, churches and temples, and highways.
Farmland has also been developed at a blistering pace into agri-businesses such as horse boarding and training facilities, pet breeding, kennels, wineries and bed and breakfasts.
The federal Port Metro Vancouver has bought up fields for future industrial use, and the federal government plans to build a fuel linealongside farm fields, while the province is building a new 10-lane bridge on fields which grow berries, grapes and corn.
Investors and speculators continue see the ALR as a land bank for residential and industrial development and exert pressure on politicians and their staff. If they manage to get land out of the ALR, they make a windfall.
If they buy smaller parcels, they claim it can’t be successfully farmed, even when there is ample proof from farmers such as Curtis Stone who teaches how to make $100,000 a year farming as little as half an acre.
Organizations which have land removed from the ALR for institutional uses such as churches and temples are supposed to farm part of it, but often don’t.
Here we produce only 45 per cent of our food, although we have the highest capacity farmland and it contributes billions of dollars in revenue to Richmond’s economy, with each farm earning an average of $228,000 each year.
There is reason for some optimism. In partnership with Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Richmond now has a farm school, and graduates are knocking on doors looking for land to farm. Instructors are also farming – showing it’s possible to succeed on smaller parcels of land.
In the meantime, residents of farm neighbourhoods and organizations such as the Garden City Conservation Society have their eyes open and their phones handy to report non-farm uses. Urbanization pressures will only intensify due to ongoing population growth.
Metro Vancouver moves to protect farmland from illegal fill
BC will face massive price spikes of up to 34% for fruits and vegetables as a result of the California drought, according to a report by Vancity.
To protect existing farmland for farming, Metro Vancouver is establishing a regional pilot project to protect agricultural land from the ongoing problem of illegal fill dumping on these sites.
Metro Vancouver has asked its 21 member municipalities to participate in a region-wide tracking pilot program.
Illegal fill crosses municipal boundaries and presents a risk to natural soils, our region’s long-term food security goals and our quality of life.
Municipalities are also considering the use of a consultant to:
review Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) and Metro Vancouver regulations to see how to better collaborate;
ensure there’s a consistent approach when it comes to municipal soil deposit bylaws; and
review provincial funding to support effective ALC enforcement resources.
Why is protecting farmland necessary?
The goal is to save dollars at the cash register and ensure a ready supply of food.
California has undergone four years of intense drought and is no longer a reliable source of food. In BC, it’s vital that we grow our own food because we’ve been relying on insecure US food sources, for example:
In 2010, 67% of BC’s vegetable imports came from the US. More than half was produced in California, including 95% of all broccoli and 74% of all lettuce.
From 1996-2011 BC’s broccoli production decreased 52% and lettuce production decreased 34%.
It’s been hot this summer and all of the crops in our neighbourhood have been early, some by as much as a month.
The last of the raspberries and tayberries are still available.
Green Gauge plums – a heritage variety grown by this area’s early Finnish settlers – didn’t do well. They ripened too early in the hot weather and then the aphids came. Farmers responded with ladybugs, but half the fruit still fell just before it was ready.
Alongside a field, I found roses, which wouldn’t have received water since the last rain, hanging on.
The Woodward Slough, once used by farmers as irrigation (they now connect to fire hydrants), was very low and muddy.
On a rare rainy day, the locals set up a farm stand in front of the small shopping plaza at the foot of No. 2 Road.