ALR has won over critics, but challenges remain

Protection of thousands of acres of farmland in the 1970s altered the future of Abbotsford and the entire Lower Mainland

Three-quarters of land in Abbotsford is in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

A farmer seeds a field and prepares for yet another growing season in British Columbia’s agricultural hub. A young couple asks a financial advisor if they will be able to buy their first home. An entrepreneur tours the city, looking for space to expand her thriving business.

Forty-three years after its creation, the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) has preserved hectares of land for farmers, limited urban sprawl, and allowed a growing Abbotsford – where three-quarters of land is protected – to maintain a balance between city and country.

Meanwhile, a host of challenges and uncomfortable questions are confronting this popular keystone of B.C. life.

Hundreds of properties remain unfarmed, urban homeowners subsidize the property tax bills of millionaires living on ALR mansions, and some farmers say their ability to make a living from their land is compromised by myriad rules.

With those challenges in mind, the City of Abbotsford is looking to hear this month from the public on what it can do to ensure farming’s fundamental role in Abbotsford is protected and enhanced.

UFV professor Lenore Newman has little doubt about how the Fraser Valley would look without the ALR.

The Lower Mainland might have B.C.’s most fertile land, but by the start of the early 1970s, the region was heading down a much different path.

At the time, 10,000 acres of the province’s best farmland was being gobbled up by developers every year.

Newman, a professor of geography at University of the Fraser Valley, says the region was slowly following the path of southern California, where demand for land led to unending sprawl, traffic nightmares, and an undifferentiated mass of suburbs.

But those weren’t the only worries on the minds of the government of the day. War, disease, drought and other unnamed “calamities” are also referenced in the bill that created the ALR. At the time, there were worries about food shortages amidst what the Agricultural Land Commission’s (ALC) chairman would call “a dismal background of population growth.” With the world adding 60 million people every year, concerns abounded about the earth’s ability to feed all those new mouths.

Those nightmares turned out to be less pressing. Today, increased food production means global hunger has decreased, even as the world’s population has risen by three billion people.

But Newman says preserving farmland has helped keep food prices reasonable in B.C., which produces around half of the food consumed here.

And Mayor Henry Braun says it has also helped preserve a sector that’s integral both to the local economy and to Abbotsford’s identity.

“Agriculture has been the mainstay of our economy since I was a small boy,” Braun says. And he said the ALR has been key in keeping it that way.

Abbotsford sprawls in areas, and Braun – who remembers sitting in his kitchen, listening to his father talk about the reserve’s creation – says the ALR was overdue by the time it was created.

Indeed, as landowners unloaded property they could no longer develop, Braun says his father bought 100 acres on Townshipline Road.

“My father thought it was a good deal as farmland.”

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Not all were as happy, though. More than 2,000 farmers rallied on the steps of the B.C. legislature, and in a report 10 years later, the ALC would itself write that, “to say that initial reaction … was ‘controversial’ would perhaps be an understatement.”

The reaction was understandable: Without warning, the government had abruptly put a freeze on agricultural land transactions and by mandating that farmland couldn’t be developed for homes, its value dropped.

For years the farmers had watched their counterparts sell off land to developers at tidy sums. Now, farmers were being told they’d waited too long. So they marched to the legislature and sent telegrams to MLAs, to the prime minister, and even to the Queen.

The act passed, though, and polls now show nine in 10 support the ALR.

Beyond the land’s value of farmland, Tracy Stobbe, an economist at Trinity Western University, said the ALR has also won the public’s support by preserving rural habitats and environments, for limiting sprawl and increasing density near city cores, and for the sheer esthetic value of having area one can still call “the country.”

The ALR also puts downward pressure on the price of farmland, while lessening – although hardly eliminating – conflicts between neighbourhoods and farms.

“There’s only so much land,” Smith said. “We’re lucky we have really great soil and land here to produce a diversity of crops.”

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Residents can add their input on the ALR and the city’s agriculture policy by taking an online survey here.