Monday, August 11, 2008

More local farm land disappearing

Goldstream News Gazette

Langford farming’s uncertain future

Nearly every morning Don Steffler packs a cooler with fresh eggs for sale at the top of his driveway off Happy Valley Road. With suburbia encroaching fast, his hen house is almost a quaint throwback to the past.

While Steffler sits on 2.2 acres designated as provincial agricultural land reserve, housing subdivisions are cropping up on next door. After 12 years trying to farm the land and raise livestock, he’s applied to remove the property from the ALR.

It’s a growing refrain from Langford landowners with ALR land — they own acreage that may or may not be farmable while their non-ALR neighbours subdivide, sell and build-out.

With more housing comes more potential to pollute what soil remains, and for increasing clashes between farmers and new residents, Steffler says.

“I’ve tried farming in Langford for years but have run into so much opposition,” he says. “People don’t like the noise or dust or the smell. On one hand they say feed us and on the other they nail you to the wall.”

Langford has about 292 acres of ALR in 83 parcels, the majority in the Happy Valley area. Most are between two and five acres. Their are three commercial farms remaining in the city.

Steffler’s ALR exclusion request, like several others in Langford, is in limbo until the City forms an agricultural advisory committee to review what land is and isn’t farmable.

The provincial agricultural land commission makes the final decision on exclusions, but it takes some of it’s cues from municipal councils. Langford opposed five exclusion applications in 2006.

A 2007 report on Langford ALR land found about 111 acres had little agricultural use, but recommended the remaining 191 acres be retained. Such ALR land has “excellent potential for development for a node of vibrant agricultural activity,” the report said. It also acknowledged some south Langford rural residents had little interest in farming, while farmers weren’t likely to set up shop with acres going for $300,000.

That report initiated a plan for the City to start buying ALR farmland using a $500 development cost charge. These days the Agricultural Land Acquisition fund has about $300,000.

Mayor Stew Young says Langford wants to preserve “real” agricultural land in perpetuity for co-operative gardening and greenspace. Large-scale farming hasn’t been a reality in Langford for a long time, he says.

“Is Langford a farming community? No. Can we create hobby farms? Yes. Will that be able to feed Langford in the case of a catastrophe? Absolutely not,” Young says.

“Langford’s goal is to own as much ALR as possible that is farmable. The community will own that land. If people don’t want to farm it, that’s OK. It’s still a good benefit to own that land.”

Local farmers will sit on Langford’s agricultural review committee, among other community members, to review ALR exclusion applications.

The City’s overall agricultural strategy probably won’t be completed until early next year, said Rob Buchan, Langford’s clerk administrator.

Young says the City is trying to strike a balance between fairness to property owners and preserving what farmland remains without it being corrupted by land development.

“It’s part greenspace and part agricultural strategy,” he says. “Happy Valley is still a semi-rural area. It can be developed but within that we can preserve farmland. People have to do their homework and realize they could be buying near a farm.”

David Stott, food security co-ordinator with the Capital Families Association, said it’s understandable some Langford ALR landowners want out of the ALR system.

“Farmers have always been the ones who in effect are left out of prosperity,” Stott said. “The challenge is individual verses social needs.”

Stott said senior government, the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture for instance, needs to provide incentives for small-scale farming and the retention of ALR land. Aspects of the government’s regulatory regime suits large corporate farms but discourage small agricultural operations, he says.

Stott noted the soil around south Langford isn’t as productive as the “deep loam of Saanich,” but there is still plenty of room for agriculture, if supported by the community.

“The critical question is what will it take to induce people to support the maintenance of land for agricultural purposes?” Stott says. “If all those lands are lost to development we will lose land that could be needed for future food production.”

For landowners such as Steffler, the development of Langford’s agricultural strategy will delay his ALR exclusion application process.

Labour and transportation costs are making local commercial farming less attractive and less viable, Steffler says. Meanwhile, he points to land next door already cleared for 42 lots.

“My buffer went out the window and I have to wait for another year while Langford gets its strategy together,” he says. “I’m locked into an un-winnable situation.”

editor@goldstreamgazette.com

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