Agriculture Day is usually one of the more benign events on the calendar of interest groups who routinely show up at the legislature to make themselves known.
Not this year. There was a lively protest outside the building over NDP changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve and a series of questions about farmers being abused by the government. A farmer — presumably — was even escorted out of the chamber after objecting loudly during an argument on farm policy.
Liberal critic Ian Paton, a life-long farmer, said the unrest stems from a historic development: “Never in the history of B.C. have we seen such an outcry from the farming community as in the last 12 months.”
The B.C. Liberals in their last term reset ALR policies more to their liking by relaxing some restrictions on farmland use. The NDP nixed the changes and reimposed the restrictions the first chance they got, which was last year. Two bills that accomplished that have been festering in some agriculture quarters ever since.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said: “We’re doing cleanup for the mess that the Opposition made when they were in government.”
There’s no argument that the NDP is utterly devoted to the ALR. What is at issue is the degree of their devotion to actual farmers.
“You can’t have farming if you don’t have farmers,” said Liberal MLA Michelle Stilwell, citing restrictions that prohibit adding a dwelling to a farm in her riding so the family’s next generation can carry on.
In another case, a farm family asked the Agricultural Land Commission if the family could put a manufactured home on their land for their elderly mother.
The commission’s answer, recited by the Opposition, was: “The chances of it being approved for anything other than farm help would not be good.”
Popham defended herself as best she could. There are no set limits on the number of houses farmers can build for their families, she said. The land commission has approved applications for non-farm use to make farms more viable she said. Most families get residential issues accommodated, she said.
But the problems kept coming. Liberal MLA Mike de Jong said an Abbotsford women’s shelter sitting on the U.S. border is shutting down because it is on ALR land.
It’s so close to the border, it had to make an arrangement with U.S. border services.
Said de Jong: “Even Donald Trump has managed to find a way to accommodate their operation … but [Popham] has issued an eviction notice.”
Popham said none of the NDP changes affected the home and it was really about tenants “having outgrown the facility.”
But the objections kept coming. A Halloween tradition in Langley — Glow Harvest — has been shut down at a nursery. The land commission has chosen not to permit what they’re planning to do.
The same is true for an even better-known festival that has been going on for years at the same nursery, drawing people from all over the Lower Mainland, and that’s Glow Christmas.
Popham said that closure is because of changes the previous Liberal government made.
The Opposition also marked Agriculture Day by introducing a bill to protect farmers from trespassers affiliated with animal-rights groups.
The bill, modelled on a change made in Alberta, was mostly for show, as a government amendment last week moves in that direction as well.
The Opposition said several B.C. livestock farmers have been “terrorized” by online and in-person threats.
Liberal MLA Laurie Throness mentioned a “dairy is scary” campaign and the potential for disruption of livestock care.
But B.C. livestock is raised in “almost like a cruise-ship atmosphere,” he said.
“I think life is pretty good for animals in our agriculture industry, especially here in British Columbia.”
There was debate last week about whether any change is needed, as trespass law would cover most situations. But farming was specifically added to that law.
It was done with an innocuous amendment, but critics want to see a louder, stronger commitment by the government to farmers.
Les Leyne covers the B.C. Legislature for the Victoria Times Colonist.