'Huge concern' about proposed agricultural changes in B.C.

Proposed changes to the Agricultural Land Commission could have a significant impact on farming in the Comox Valley, says a local agrologist and farmer.

"The (Bill 24) came out of nowhere; it was huge surprise," said Arzeena Hamir, who owns Amara Farm in Courtenay.

Bill 24 - 2014 Agricultural Land Commission Amendment Act, which passed first reading last week, seeks to open the door to potential oil and gas development and value-added activities.

The changes would also split the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) into two zones, with Zone 1 consisting of Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan, while Zone 2 would include the rest of the province, including the Interior, the North and the Kootenay region.

The commission would focus more on protecting farmland in Zone 1, while more flexibility of land use would be granted in Zone 2.

Additionally, the bill proposes six regional panels would be established.

"One of the issues is that there was no public consultation. With the core review, it happened so quickly, we just found out and there were only about three or four people from the Comox Valley who presented to the core review panel. It's a huge concern … the vast majority of the general public doesn't support this," noted Hamir.

She added Bill 24 applies to the area because of the amount of coal in the Comox Valley.

"Although we would be in Zone 1, the changes to legislation mean a huge amount of the decision making is made at a regional panel — appointed by the government — and usually stacked by them in a certain way."

Hamir explained decisions could result in long-term repercussions.

"Humans are unfortunately very short-term thinkers. ALR protection should really happen at arm's length with no personal gain."

The ALC, established in 1973, is responsible for preserving and protecting the province's farmland. It conducts land-use planning in partnership with local communities, evaluates applications for the use of land in the ALR, and encourages farming as a basis for a sustainable economy and a secure source of food.

The ALR comprises five per cent of B.C's land mass, or 4.7 million hectares.

Those who support the bill say it could allow farmers to broaden their businesses.

"What the government has proposed may allow ranchers to diversify their operations and increase profitability to the B.C. cattle industry," noted Kevin Boon, general manager of the British Columbia Cattleman's Association in a press release.

The BCCA added when the ALR was implemented, there were programs in place that supported the farm community and encouraged agriculture. Without those programs in place today, they noted ranchers must have the option to be self-sustaining.

They do warn BCCA's goal is to ensure ranching families can create a sustainable future in agriculture.

"While ranchers need the ability to capitalize on compatible land uses, preservation of agriculture must be our primary objective," Boon explained. "The risk with flexibility is that cannibalization of farmland can occur which jeopardizes the future of agriculture in this province."


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