A recent trip to British Columbia highlighted once again the fragile future of agricultural production in that province.
It seems the ag industry there is constantly fighting off attempts by various levels of government and the usual lobby groups to put them out of business. The problem for the industry is that they are a relatively small sector of the B.C. economy, with few voters to have any political power.
In another life, many years ago, I ranched in the Peace River area of B.C., so I have some understanding of the political mindset “over there,” as it relates to agriculture.
One of the major problems is that B.C. is essentially ruled by a vast urban majority who live in a fairly small area in the Vancouver and Victoria regions. Those folks have never had any connection or understanding of agriculture and have proven highly susceptible to politically-correct trends on food issues and the environment. Their elected representatives are prone to embrace trendy political whims for politically expediency — no surprise there.
But such fanciful delusional attitudes tend to taint B.C. as being populated by hippies and airheads. Stories of an illegal marijuana-growing industry in B.C. worth hundreds of millions of dollars only adds to that suspicion.
Yet, B.C. is home to some fairly significant commercial intensive agriculture operations. Sophisticated, large-scale dairy, poultry and greenhouse operations continue to flourish, particularly in the Fraser Valley. But therein lies the problem — most non-ag folks and their governments don’t appreciate having to live amongst the side effects of such production — that being livestock odour, runoff, waste removal and other environmental concerns.
Add into that never-ending battles by developers to remove farmland from the agricultural land reserve and you have enough ammunition to harass the ag industry out of business.
The usual practice is to have bureaucrats at the provincial, regional and municipal level invent all sorts of regulations and red tape that restrict ag production one way or another. Besides just plain aggravation, it causes production costs to increase — that makes it ever more difficult for B.C. producers to stay in business.
B.C. is already a high-cost production area and seems bent on making it worse. Producer organizations recently managed to fight off proposed waste disposal regulations — now they have been confronted with another move to regulate odour levels.
If any of those regulations were to be imposed, an army of government enforcers would descend on B.C. farmers and processors armed with powers to impose outrageous fines. Clearly, agriculture would suffer the consequences — but that’s probably the plan.
Producer groups valiantly fight off these blatant attempts to drive agriculture into oblivion, but they are getting tired. The quandary is that the B.C. government continues to pour millions of dollars into promoting B.C.-grown food products, whilst at the same time allowing other levels of government to wreck havoc on the production of those locally grown products.
But then, I expect most B.C. urbanites have a different perspective of farming than what really exists. What they see at B.C. farmers’ markets are a plethora of quaint small farmers selling their organic rutabagas. What they do not want to see or smell are the side effects of real commercial agriculture.
I would suggest that most B.C. urban consumers would be more than happy to see intensive farming production and processing disappear from the Fraser Valley.
Ironically, the B.C. government 40 years ago created legislation to actually protect agricultural production and farmland. The province established the Agriculture Land Commission and zoned all the arable land in the province.
It was insightful legislation for a province with so little actual usable agricultural land. However, since then, an army of developers, promoters, politicians of every level and busybody bureaucrats have been trying to undermine the legislation.
The result has been a gradual loss of farmland by means of thousands of exemptions.
The underlying scheme seems to be to make farming and food processing so difficult and costly that the industry will just die. That would seem to satisfy both local residents and land developers. The result would be to see some of the most productive farmland in North America paved over and built over.
It’s a sad situation, but not unique to B.C. Similar loss of productive land around Calgary and Edmonton happens every year — only an abundance of remaining farmland hides what is happening.
Will Verboven is editor of Alberta Farmer.