Agriculture not a priority in planning

One can’t help but be impressed by the continuous sprouting of new home subdivisions around our cities and towns.

One can’t help but be impressed by the continuous sprouting of new home subdivisions around our cities and towns. Construction efficiency is amazing – within two years in an empty field dozens of homes and streets can completely fill an acre of land. The down side is that the land is lost forever from its former use. That’s the “price of progress” is the usual retort. The counter retort is “they don’t make land anymore.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t register much on most city folks as they see countless empty acres of land surrounding cities and grocery stores groaning with an overabundance of food. So what’s the big concern is an understandable perspective.

It’s been reported that last year Alberta lost over 90 quarters of land to urban encroachment through residen­tial, industrial, utility and infrastructures uses. To most that seems like a small loss within the context of Alberta’s mil­lions of acres of land mass. Maybe so, but as one sees the land disappear one laments what at one time was produc­tive farm and ranch lands. It’s interesting to note that when these lands were rezoned for development, virtually no mention is made of the loss of the agricultural production value of the land. Compare that to what the environmental lobby demands and gets whenever the slightest develop­ment project is proposed. You guessed it – elaborate envi­ronmental assessments are done and at great cost.

How twisted our civilized approach has become when there is more concern for the possible loss of sage grouse habitat than the loss of food production. The classic ex­ample was four years ago when the provincial government prevented the conversion of a few thousand acres of crown land from grazing to irrigation development. The excuse was that it would be a critical loss to wild bird habitat. Those same folks ignored the reality that windmill farms nearby are killing thousands of wild birds and bats annu­ally. It would seem that if farmland can be converted to res­idential and industrial development without much concern, than surely some crown land can be released for irrigation development. But few make that connection.

The problem always boils down to the political implica­tions – agriculture has far fewer voters. That’s clearly evi­dent in the ongoing regional land use planning exercise that has been going on across Alberta. Every sector of economy has its finger in the process with over representation by the green and recreational lobbies. Agriculture, even when it is the principal user of the land base, gets short shift as if it doesn’t even exist. I guess that should not be surprise since most of the folks on the committees putting together the regional plans are city folks.

As much as the agriculture production assessment of land to be developed should be considered, it’s a hard pol­icy to maintain even if there is a law in place. Forty years ago British Columbia (BC) initiated their Agricultural Land Reserve program – it was part of a policy to preserve the scarce arable land base of that province. However, through an appeal process thousands of acres of agricultural land were subsequently exempted and developed. Amazingly, new golf courses were declared to be an agricultural use. Recently the BC government decided to put a two tier sys­tem in place that would make development even easier in the more populous areas of the province. In the long-term with that sort of approach, one could see the end of com­mercial agricultural production in the Fraser and Okanagan Valleys. One can sense the same thing developing over the years in the Edmonton/Calgary corridor which contains some of the province’s most productive black soil zones. Interestingly that area could become even more productive were global warming to continue, but I digress.

The other problem with having agricultural production as a priority in assessing land development concepts falls into the sensitive area of property rights. Landowners have a visceral reaction to being told what they can do with their property. This is particularly critical with land that is not already zoned for other purposes.

It’s a problem that the provincial land use planning pro­cess has to face. That would be a repetition of history, as the original BC program faced similar landowner reaction when their Agricultural Land Reserve program was imple­mented. Alas, except for conservation easements, there would seem to be little hope for a visionary program to preserve land for agricultural production – the will to do so just does not seem to be there by government and so­ciety in general. I expect future generations will reap the consequences.