New small farms? Not so easy, residents discover

Tim Haus and his family are looking for a small parcel of farmland in Dunster.
Tim Haus and his family are looking for a small parcel of farmland in Dunster.

By: Thomas Rohner

After valley residents learned a landholdings company owned by U.S. billionaires bought nearly 1,000 acres in the area, they voiced concerns about rising real estate prices, abandoned farmland and declining populations throughout the Robson Valley. Aging farmers are selling off property to fund retirement, and newcomers vying to live off the land find themselves competing with global investors.

“It’s a really complex situation and for me it’s an age-old dance,” Karyn Janecke, a local landowner said at a community meeting July 15. “We want to preserve our community, but we don’t want to limit individual freedoms.”

Most of the valley land on either side of the Fraser River is within the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), which can’t be broken into parcels smaller than 150 acres. The restriction is meant to protect farmland, but is increasingly viewed as a cost barrier for middle-income buyers.

“The people who can buy big acreages are going to be people who have a lot of money and are not interested in farming,” Glenda Thompson, another local landowner said at the meeting. “The people that can afford these big parcels will not be those type of people who will be part of the community. I can’t see it.”

On the other side of the table, another valley resident stressed industry– not property — was the valley’s major concern.

“We should be discussing how to preserve what we have, but also how to bring industry to the valley,” he said. “We need to bring people who want to work into the valley, and those who will create jobs.” Communication breakdown
Fraser River Landholdings Ltd. is owned by Bobby Patton Jr. and Mark Walter — wealthy American businessmen whose co-ownership of the LA Dodgers is only part of their massive portfolios.

One of the most consistent complaints locals have against the company is a lack of direct, meaningful communication. Media reps for the company ignored four requests for interviews, replying instead through email. A tour of the properties was scheduled then cancelled.

Last month the company published a letter in the local newspaper, saying it financially supports local businesses, like the Dunster General Store, and the Dunster Community Association. The letter said all properties were actively managed and farmed — rebutting concerns that the lots are abandoned.

The company’s local manager says they also buy farm supplies locally.

Lelani Arris, president of the Dunster Community Association and a former co-manager of the store, said locals see them mainly buy gas at the Dunster Store.

“And the store gets four cents per liter on gas sales.”

The Community Association treasurer could not find any records of the company’s donations or membership either.

“The question for me,” Arris said, “is, what’s the real purpose behind the land grab? Is it for hunting? Investment? Is it carbon taxes?”

No company reps came to the publicized community meeting to discuss land issues July 15th, and without any direct communication, locals are left wondering what role the company will play in the community’s future.

Protecting local owners

According to Okanagan College geography professor Arthur “Gill” Green, local land ownership is crucial to sustaining vital farming communities. “Without local ownership, often what you’ll have is people who aren’t part of the community making decisions based on their own interest, which can conflict with the community’s.”

An agriculture approach that emphasizes large-scale farming often prices out middle-income earners, opening the door for global capital and foreign ownership, says Green. “We are setting up a system of large land owners where, in order to access the land you have to do crop sharing or pay them money, and if you look at actual dynamics of our system, it’s starting to mirror feudalism.”

Back at the community meeting, professor at the University of Northern British Columbia’s environmental school of planning Dave Connell presented on changes to B.C.’s regulation of agricultural land. Connell says a cultural shift toward locally-sourced food and smaller-scale agriculture is well documented, both in the Robson Valley and across B.C.

“Locals would be happy not because they have small-lot agriculture,” he said, “but because there’s enough small scale agriculture that contributes to the vitality of the community.”

Charlie Green is a local looking to buy and farm land who attended the community meeting. He says he knows of five families who are looking for smaller lots of land to farm and to become a part of the community.

Global issues, local concerns

But valley residents are discovering the vitality of their community is subject to global forces that go beyond small-scale agriculture.

A global land rush is pricing properties in BC out of reach for middle-income earners, Lenore Newman, Research Chair of Food Security and Environment at the University of Fraser Valley said.

About 85 per cent of BC is crown land, and if even five per cent of that land was opened for farming, Dr. Newman said, or even homesteading, farmland would become more accessible to average income earners. Dr. Newman admits homesteading is high-risk and would need to be modernized, but added, “I mean that’s how we built this country. It was a hugely effective model.”

“I would love to see them bring back homesteading,” Pete Amyoony, a local gardener and landowner, present at the community meeting, said.

Provincial restrictions on foreign land ownership could prevent global capital from flooding the market, Dr. Newman said, and more could be done to ensure farmland is actually farmed. In France, for example, citizens must have an education in agricultural sciences or come from a farming family in order to own farmland.

“We need to look at these rules being used elsewhere.”

Three options for change

In BC, Connell identified three avenues locals can explore to exert more influence on land use policies: through the existing application process of the Agriculture Land Commission (ALC); through amendments to local community plans and through an agricultural planning process at the regional level.

The ALC regularly receives applications for subdivisions of larger parcels and judges each application on its own merit, Connell said.

But a study done in 2012 of the applications assessed within the Fraser-Fort George district suggests the desire for small-lot agriculture has yet to surface. Out of 127 applications reviewed over 10 years, 89 were for subdivisions but only two per cent of those were for small-lot agriculture.

Land use planners at the ALC said based on their statistics, they are unaware of the growing desire for small-lot agriculture.

Between Dunster and McBride, 217 out of 643 lots are smaller than 40 acres, says Martin Collins, a regional land use planner with the ALC.

“I don’t think there’s any shortage of smaller land parcels,” he says.

But Prof. Green, who also sat on the agricultural committee of Kelowna for two years, said the sample of applications the ALC reviews is fundamentally biased.

“The ALC is the end point of the application process. The beginning point is when people come to city staff.”

Green is currently studying the applications that never make it to the ALC review.

Community planning

Official Community Plans are meant to give locals a direct say on issues like land use, and are designed to be reviewed every five to ten years. The community plan for Electoral Area H, Downstream — bound by Dome Creek to the west and Spittal Creek to the east — hasn’t been amended since 2002.

“It’s overdue for a review,” Connell said. “Things do change, and 12 years is a long time. It doesn’t mean you have to overhaul the thing.”

“If we’re going to have any effective means of acting within our own environment,” Ray Thiessen, a local at the community meeting said, “we have to have control that is close enough to our own environment to do that.”

Terry McEachen, general manager of development services at the Fraser-Fort George regional district, said community plans are always available for amending, whether on individual proposals or on specific policies.

“If there was a group of people who wanted a specific issue addressed, then they should get together and do a petition.”

Support doesn’t have to be extensive, but there should be evidence that a group of citizens would like a certain initiative looked into.

Amendments can include policy changes, McEachen said, such as smaller parcel sizes to accommodate small-lot agriculture, but community plans must be consistent with the ALC. An amendment to parcel sizes, then, would have to be approved by the ALC.

Regional Planning

The most promising avenue for locals to affect farmland policies is the agricultural planning process, which the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George is considering pursuing, Connell said. It means developing an agriculture plan, independent of community plans and the ALC, Connell said. The process starts by identifying needs and values and by recommending policy changes. Whether the plan is shelved indefinitely or, for example, adopted as a bylaw, is up to political will and leadership, he added.

Area B of the Squamish-Lillooet regional district spent the past 18 months developing an agricultural plan, and is set to release their final proposal in a few weeks. Jacquie Rasmussen chaired the working group for the process, and although she couldn’t reveal what the final proposals would be ahead of their official publication, said the regional district has already agreed to adopt the plan as a bylaw.

“It was a very positive process,” Rasmussen said. “I really hope you can get it going up in your region.”

The Robson Valley’s regional district hasn’t committed itself to the process yet, McEachen said.

“I’m doing a board report as we speak hopefully finishing in August.

Dannielle Alan, chair of the McBride Chamber of Commerce, attended the Dunster community meeting and said she’s been in conversation with different regional district members about the value of an agricultural plan.

“There is an opportunity for communities to have more input…and a large impact on what the regional district does with their agricultural land use planning.”

Next Step

Before considering any of these review processes, locals at the community meeting agreed to first define their collective vision. Arris urged attendees to submit big-picture hopes for the coming decades to her, either via email or phone. And she encouraged everybody to talk to their neighbours, to continue the conversation.

“We need to find a guiding vision,” Arris said.

Amyoony agreed: “I think it would be good for us to have ideas as to what direction we want to go before we even approach the regional district about our community plan, or an agricultural plan.”

The next community meeting will be Sept. 9th.