Comox Valley Regional District candidates address agricultural issues

Comox Valley Farmers’ Institute hosts all-candidates meeting

The Comox Valley Farmers’ Institute hosted an all-candidates forum at Dove Creek Hall Tuesday evening, the only election forum featuring all six Comox Valley Regional District director candidates.

The format included a series of agricultural-related questions that all candidates were given in advance, followed by a Q&A portion from the audience.

Representing Area B (Lazo North) were incumbent Rod Nichol and challenger Arzeena Hamir.

Area C (Puntledge-Black Creek) incumbent Edwin Grieve was in attendance, and challenger Jay Oddleifson’s responses were read by his wife, Lindy, as he has been hospitalized since the weekend.

Area A (Baynes Sound, Denman/Hornby Islands) candidates Daniel Arbour and Jim Elliott both accepted the invitation to the forum, even though the audience was virtually all Area B and Area C residents, and Area A is not an “agriculture primary” community. (Both candidates acknowledged this during their opening remarks.)

***

In the last five years, what public policies and/or bylaws at the municipal/civic level have you publicly advocated or opposed?

Grieve brought up the Official Community Plan that was adopted just prior to 2014.

“We also had a very active building department at regional district that wanted to bring in inspections and permits for all agricultural buildings, which I fought tooth and nail, and we don’t have them now. We only have [inspections] for dwellings.”

Nichol discovered grant money available for the Tsolum River Agricultural Watershed Plan. He also met with the chair of the Agricultural Land Commission to discuss rental income opportunities for farmers.

“We’ve got a housing shortage in the Comox Valley. Farming is expensive. Smaller farms, fencing, what have you, is very expensive. The Agricultural Land Commission is starting to change their approach to allowing farmers to rent, and use that rental income to augment fencing and what have you on their land.”

Hamir championed the fight against GMO alfalfa.

She made presentations to both the CVRD and the City of Courtenay about a GMO-free purchasing policy, and while she said she did not get much traction at that level of government, she proceeded to the provincial level and now sits on the ministry’s advisory committee for ALR.

She is advocating raising the limit at which a farmer can get their farm tax status, from $2,500 to $7,000 (in line with Ontario).

Hamir sits on the Investment Agriculture Foundation, and started a “Farm to School Project” which started as a salad bar at Huband School and has now expanded to four other schools in the Comox Valley.

“Combined, come January, when the schools are all at their peak salad bar consumption, I estimate that we will have a purchasing of over $30,000 of locally grown produce going into the schools, and into the bellies of our local kids.”

Oddleifson said the three main guiding documents – the Comox Valley Agricultural Plan, the Official Community Plan and the Regional Growth Strategy – should be reviewed with farmers, to ensure the goals and policies are set with the farmers’ best interests in mind.

“Most importantly, we should measure our progress, especially on the goals farmers agree are most urgent and important to the protection and growth of agriculture today.”

Arbour, through the Hornby Economic Society, helped the Hornby Island Farmland Trust, with the goal of maintaining a farm profile. He also helped with the implementation of the Hornby community garden, which held between 20 and 30 lots.

***

What are your thoughts on the accessibility and security of water for agricultural purposes in the Comox Valley?

“Without water there is no agriculture,” said Grieve, the first to respond to the question. “We need to look no further than our southern neighbours to see what can happen. We’ve got aquifers being pumped down in California and Arizona. Apparently Kansas is going to be a desert pretty soon, because they are running out of water. So when the issue came up around the water bottling plant, and the very fact that there were absolutely no referrals, no information, there was no peer review… I think that was a wake-up call for us.”

He added how impressed the ministry was with the public engagement and the outpouring of concern from the people of the Comox Valley.

“It blind-sided them. They had no idea.”

Nichol recalled chairing a meeting when the issue of the Sackville Road water bottling company was first brought up. He suggested those in attendance reach out to their MLA.

“They did, and they were absolutely inundated.”

Nichol also led a contingent to a meeting with Minister of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, Doug Donaldson, at which the minister was peppered with questions from residents regarding what they considered the premature approval of a water extraction licence.

“I have to thank you all for getting engaged,” said Nichol to the crowd. “When we met with him again at the UBCM (Union of BC Municipalities conference), he remembered the Griffin Pub, and he certainly does not want to go through that again.

“We stressed that local government must be consulted on all permits for water, and actually, permits for anything. They have a duty to consult with us.”

Nichol also commented on the cost of water and that he plans on revisiting the water rate for farmers.

Hamir discussed a self-sustainability process to water security – a practice she has applied on her own farm. During the drought of 2015, she and her family decided to invest in capturing water. They dug a 400,000-gallon dugout.

“In three storms in November, it was full. We now irrigate out of that, entirely, for our field vegetables. It has not only saved our farm; it has allowed us to expand. It’s that type of technology – not something that’s extremely expensive – that I would like to advocate for more farms in the Valley to have.”

She is hoping to find a subsidy through the Ministry of Agriculture, such as the Climate Change Adaptation Program, to subsidize farmers to capture more of the winter rains, for land irrigation.

“I think that makes far more sense than stressing the aquifer.”

Oddleifson pointed out that all of the CVRD guiding policies agree that water deserves protection, at every level.

“An agricultural representative should always be at the table whenever water policies are being debated,” he said in his statement. “Decisions about water consumption and protection pertaining to residential development should not be made without consideration for agriculture.”

Elliott discussed the registering of wells, and said his big concern is the logging in the watersheds.

“In the area I come from, we have a little lake, Langley Lake. It is our drinking water supply. It is on privately managed forest lands, and they are logged right to the edge of the lake. It’s estimated that 40 per cent of all the water is held by the trees around the area. So once you cut all the trees down, you no longer have all that water in reserve. I will encourage legislation that will prevent logging in community watersheds.”

Arbour echoed the sentiments of other candidates.

***

What is your view on the proposed Agriplex at the Comox Valley Exhibition Grounds?

Hamir said she is not in support of the Agriplex.

“In principle, I think it’s a project we need. Farmers in the Valley need a place to aggregate their product, to value add so that we can ship it all over the province. The Comox Valley Farmers’ Market needs a permanent home…. However, when I discussed the size of the project, and what it was going to encompass… I’m estimating it’s now at 100,000 square feet. That’s over two acres, on ALR land. And when I heard what kind of shows were going to be in there… I don’t see a lot of benefit to ag. I’m unfortunately finding that it has lost its ag purpose. I think there are portions of this project that are so exciting … but I think it could go in other places in the Valley.”

She mentioned turning the old Thrifty Foods site in downtown Courtenay into a “Granville Island-type” of hub.

Nichol disagreed.

“The concept is good. The whole Comox Valley could, no doubt, benefit by this.”

He pointed out that while the agriculture community would be the prime tenant, the more user groups that use the complex, the more sustainable it would be.

“I really don’t know why some people are up in arms about this, saying it can’t happen. It can happen, and it would be nothing but a benefit to this Valley.”

Grieve has been a champion of the project from the conceptual onset.

“We are not taking away anything, folks. To call it agricultural land is a misnomer. It’s a gravel ridge. Nobody is farming the exhibition ground. You look no further than Abbotsford, or Chilliwack, or even Duncan to see that we can have these kinds of facilities on agricultural land.”

He pointed out that presently, the Florence Filberg Centre, at a capacity of approximately 300, is the largest facility available in the Valley for a sit-down dinner.

“I’ve never seen as much misunderstanding around a project in my life… For people to say, ‘Oh, it’s too grandiose,’ I would say that would be the same thing they told my grandfather and my uncles when they built the Native Sons Hall.”

***

What is your position on open burning as it relates to the clearing of agricultural land?

All candidates were in agreement that the rules for clearing of agricultural land should not be reviewed, and that while there are cases of individuals burning things they shouldn’t, burning for the purpose of clearing agricultural land is not the same issue as using inefficient woodstoves for heating.

“When you go to clear land, it’s a one-off,” said Grieve. “So if you’re going to have a burn, you have to do it properly…. But the cost of having a stump-grinder come in and do all that work… right now I don’t see any other solution than to do it properly and do it once.”

Nichol agreed the cost of shredding or grinding is astronomical for a farm.

“I’ve been in the Valley a long time and I really haven’t seen much abuse. There are some bad actors out there and that’s what we should be looking at. As far as farmers clearing land and disposing of the stumps by burning, I really don’t have a problem with that.”

Hamir said the number one issue she has confronted when campaigning in Area B is air quality.

“People are really having a hard time in the fall and the winter, when woodstoves start becoming the major way of heating. I don’t want to equate that with clearing of land… but as farmers, I hate seeing organic matter burned. If there is any way for us to be able to, as a regional district, purchase [stump-grinding] equipment so that it is made available at a much lower rate for farmers, that is something I would support. We need that organic material on our land to help us through our extreme weather.”

Oddleifson said farmers are the primary users of our land and as such, they have the rights and should not have to conform to the same rules as non-farming residents.

“Farmers are expected to follow all legislation already in place that pertains to their operations under the Right To Farm Act. I believe there are efficient rules in place … and further legislation is not warranted.”

***The Q&A portion of the event consisted mostly of questions directed at individual candidates, and/or general comments and concerns from the floor.

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