A farmer at work in Delta. Metro Vancouver wants to see more farmland in the region producing crops rather than sitting idle.

A farmer at work in Delta. Metro Vancouver wants to see more farmland in the region producing crops rather than sitting idle.

Metro Vancouver stymied on aim of reforming idle farmers

ALR land owners can't be forced to produce, cautions Surrey Coun. Hepner

Agricultural land that sits idle and grows nothing may seem a waste, but regional politicians say there’s only so much they can do to fix the challenges of farming in a high-priced urban area.

Metro Vancouver has spent money championing a steady stream of regional initiatives to increase the amount of actively farmed land and bolster food security.

The regional district has studied the use of agricultural lands, lobbied for tighter rules to keep mega-mansions from eating up farmland and drafted a regional food system strategy, which is yet to be implemented.

But Surrey Coun. Linda Hepner says it might all be going too far.

“I don’t know how much we can inject ourselves into forcing private land owners to farm their properties,” she said. “Land ownership is part of our democracy. Those who don’t want to change it are entitled to not have it change.”

Hepner said farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) shouldn’t be a concern if it’s unused for farming, because it’s protected for the long term.

“Why not just consider them lands in waiting as we do other sectors?” she asked at Metro’s regional planning committee April 5.

Hepner was responding to a survey of ALR land owners conducted for Metro by Ipsos Reid at a cost of $15,000.

It found 28 per cent of the ALR in Richmond, Delta, Surrey, Langley and Barnston Island isn’t being farmed but could be.

The survey found little interest among the land owners who weren’t farming to get productive.

Some like having undeveloped forest wrapping their home in nature, like a personal park, others saw it as an investment.

One Delta owner was keeping the land until it could be taken out of the ALR and industrialized.

Others said the soil was bad or its use was restricted due to proximity to a stream.

Nor were most interested in leasing out their land to a farmer, some saying they don’t want to lose privacy, while others doubted it would be worth the hassle or said they wouldn’t want smelly livestock like pigs or chickens.

Others interested in trying to farm complained of high risks, low rewards and municipal red tape.

“The municipalities promote themselves as farm friendly, but no one actually understands it and they don’t do anything to help,” said one Langley land owner. “It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

Of those surveyed who do farm, cattle, horses or other livestock were the top use, followed by hay, while fruit or vegetable crops are grown less frequently and tend to be blueberries or potatoes.

Hepner backed incubator farms to foster new farmers, along with exploring ways to reduce the cost of water for farms, solve drainage issues and reduce conflict with nearby land uses.

A Metro staff report concluded ALR land owners won’t take up farming on their own without “significant intervention” from government.

And some owners “will never farm their ALR land due to lifestyle choices” no matter what incentives or assistance might be offered.

It argued supposedly unfarmable land with poor soil can still house greenhouses and barns.

The report recommends Metro work with other levels of government and farmers to “dispel the myths of agriculture in this region and to investigate financial disincentives to not farming land in the ALR.”

Delta Coun. Ian Paton, a farmer himself, said modern farming requires large land parcels to be efficient.

He traces the problem back to the early 1970s, when owners of large farms – particularly in Surrey and Langley – rushed to subdivide them into smaller acreages just before the province created the ALR.

The result, Paton said, was a proliferation of mega-homes on five-acre hobby farms across those cities.

The initial buyers tended to be wealthy doctors and lawyers with horse-crazy kids into show jumping. As they in turn sold off, the ownership profile changed again.

“They’re suddenly more interested in buying them because ‘I can run my part-time automotive body shop in the barn out the back, or my kids can practice their dirt biking, or we can ride our horses,'” Paton said. “That’s why food production has gone away from a lot of these small parcels.”

Like Hepner, he sees no magic solution.

“How do you tell people this is what you can or cannot do with your five-acre hobby farm?” he asked.

Paton said it’s “pretty crazy” to order a land owner to plant carrots or potatoes or even require them to lease it out to someone who will farm it.