Saturday, April 2, 2011

Why not a BC agricultural land trust with a farmstead act? by Gordon Wilson

The struggle to preserve agricultural land in British Columbia can be traced back to a fundamental flaw in the BC Land Commission Act and the establishment of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

This should be clear when one observes that many of the people who are lobbying hardest to get their land out of the ALR are farmers who have invested their lives in working the land, have raised their families on the land, and have nothing appreciable to show for it in terms of cash savings. Their land is their retirement fund, and yet it is virtually worthless without a potential to change the permitted land use, because nobody, not even their own children, want the life of a modern Canadian farmer. This is both shocking and an issue that needs to be addressed if we are to protect farming as an option in Canada.

Certainly British Columbia is better served in agricultural land protection than other provinces. Ontario, in which roughly half of Canada’s prime farm land may be found, has lost roughly one million acres of agricultural land to urban sprawl and industrial development since 1991.

The BC Land Commission Act (BCLCA) was introduced in April of 1973 by the Barrett NDP government to protect British Columbia’s agricultural land base. As progressive as the Bill was, it was fundamentally flawed because the Act caused agricultural land to be preserved through a process of land zoning, rather than through the establishment of an agricultural land trust in which residual title on the land rests with the Crown at all times, and cannot be removed.

While I was elected to office, I pushed hard for the creation of an Agricultural Land Trust and the introduction of a Farmstead Act.

The model that I proposed, and that I still advocate today, is for the creation of an Agricultural Land Trust that is effectively a “land bank” into which farmers can sell their farmland at a value to reflect the potential of the land as a valued producer of agricultural product, and this value takes into account the quality of soil, availability of water, and history of production.

Farmers should not be expected to carry the cost of the ALR on their shoulders and not have a reasonable opportunity to retire with tangible financial benefits for all their years of hard work.

The establishment of an Agricultural Land Trust would put all agricultural land into a permanent land base to the benefit of all Canadians, underwritten by federal and provincial governments.

Those who currently own agricultural land will still hold fee simple title to it, but if they chose to sell and move on, the sale is made into the trust at a price that reflects the agricultural potential of the land as established through standard land appraisal processes.

Similarly, pre-retirement sale of land into the trust would be possible while the farmer continues to farm though a management contract.

This approach will achieve two valuable results:

First, farmers will have greater certainty with respect to their retirement from the land with sufficient incentive to continue to farm without the pressure brought to bear by land speculators and realtors who dangle the financial rewards available through sale of land to developers who will petition to have the land removed from the ALR.

Second, land held within the agricultural land trust can be made available to young Canadians who may be provided incentives and training that will cause them to want to farm.

Yesterday, I wrote that we need to put more emphasis on developing local markets for locally produced goods, and to do it in such a manner that we are able to compete with low-priced foreign food products that flood our markets year round. For the greatest success from production to market to consumption, we need to give farmers the opportunity to succeed.

The companion legislation that I advocated while elected and continue to advocate is the The Farmstead Act.

The primary goal of this legislation is to provide major incentives for new farmers, young and old, to take over farms that are held in the Trust, and make it financially viable to work on these farms, modify them, and update them.

Recognizing that farmers selling land into the Trust will require a solid financial return for their land, measures will be needed to make these available farms affordable for those Canadians who wish to take on farming, many of whom may have skills and passion for farming but lack the resources to gain access to farmland. The Farmstead Act is a mechanism that provides this access by making these farms available on conditions not unlike the now defunct Homestead Act that was responsible for building much of western Canada.

The Farmstead Act legislation I envision will make farms available from the Trust to new farmers on a lease-to-own basis without the requirement of a massive down payment and the challenge of trying to find a commercial bank that will provide farm mortgages without proof of off-farm income to support it.

Tied to educational programs within our community colleges, technical institutions and flourishing new universities, I believe that farming can become a very attractive life choice for many Canadians and an excellent economic generator for our country, not to mention the extra benefits of greater access to local food. The Farmstead Act, if linked to a stable Agricultural Land Trust, will provide the financial security that modern Canadians are looking for while promoting and expanding the farming options within the province and country as a whole.

Under this system, the existing provisions for farm preservation that are included in the Land Commission Act, and the Farm Practices Protection (Right to Farm) Act, will be better secured. Local planners will have to take into account both current and future farm demand for water, and the pressures to sell or move that are brought upon farmers who live adjacent to suburban populations such as those in the Fraser Valley will be removed. Fruit growers in the Okanagan will grow fruit knowing that when they are ready to retire, they will get a fair return for their land from the Trust.

Last, but by no means the least contentious aspect of this proposal, is the fact that an established Agricultural Land Trust will be treated as fee simple land, alienated from the Aboriginal Treaty process so that large tracts of fine agricultural land cannot be removed from farming as a result of Treaty making with First Nations as we have seen in the Tsawwassen Treaty where 207 hectares of prime land was removed from the ALR, and 290 hectares of land formerly in the ALR remained excluded.

That does not mean that proper compensation in the Treaty process will not apply; it means in the determination of compensation, the federal and provincial governments and the First Nation involved will have to recognize that the real value of agricultural land is in its ability to grow food to feed the people, and not to be stripped of its soil to build shopping malls.

Best of all, British Columbians will know that the base of agricultural land will be preserved in perpetuity, cared for and valued for food production, and this inventory of land will grow. This program ensures that a whole new generation of people will find new and innovative ways to increase our food production, and by doing so, increase the economic and physical health of our province and country.

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