Saturday, May 13, 2006

Protect farmland or farmers?

Are we protecting the business of farming or farmland? "Both" I hear on my left. "Neither" I hear on my right.

Maple Ridge is commonly quoted as having some 230 farms. These farms are scattered throughout this small community located on the northeast fringe of the Greater Vancouver Regional District (“GVRD”) and operate under GVRD regulations and guidelines.

Of the many bodies that function within the GVRD to control socio-economic and environmental issues, the Agricultural Land Commission (“ALC”) which was set up as the custodian of the Agricultural Land Reserve, finds itself at the centre of an ongoing and contentious public debate. The arguments for and against vary little, yet the areas vary geographically within the confines of the GVRD, from municipality to municipality.

Naturally enough big arguments seem to attract big statements. Farming is a waste of land, one side argues. Farm land must be protected at all costs, the other side argues. It is tempting to leave those two statements in that pure form and simply take a vote them. Alas, there’s more.

Here is an example. Of the 230 farms operating in Maple Ridge how many did so profitably or could simply be said to have been of a community benefit, irrespective of viability? Someone out there will have an answer to that question.

Perhaps that same someone has the answer this question. Was the ALC formed to protect farm land or farms? If farm land is not being protected for farming then for what purpose is it being held in reserve?

Maple Ridge in its brief history since
1860 at the time of Proclamation of the Pre-Emption Act in January, allowing for the registration of land in British Columbia; the first pre-emptions are at Albion, Chilliwack and Sumas, has followed a path of subdividing itself into urban sprawl to the point where it now finds itself. With each subdivision the threat to agricultural accelerates.

Environmental purists argue for the protection of every centimeter that is green, including the farmland that was wrested from the natural environment by the imposition of dykes on the flood plain. What developers find troubling perhaps is that the environmentalists make no differentiation between a 5, 10, 15, 20 or 100 acre piece land that falls within the ALR. Put another way, how big is a farm? Or what constitutes a farm? Someone, someone in the Maple Ridge Planning Department, knows exactly how many sites exist within the ALR that will nary see a farm operating on them today, tomorrow or ever. A cynic may describe these marginal sites as “rural trinkets” maintained only for the pleasure of environmental purists. A landowner for his part may view them as a nest egg.

Of course, in a world where size does not count, any argument that would permit ALR land to be excluded simply because it is not now nor ever will be viable seems not to matter. Or does it? Would the lives of the politicians and bureaucrats (not to mention the many interest groups) not be simplified if it were possible to better define that land which is truly of agricultural value and that which is simply an adornment? Or would such a suggestion only deepen the complexities?