B.C.’s agriculture minister got a first-hand look at the difficulties facing the East Kootenay ranching community on Monday, July 29.
Minister Pat Pimm spent the day in and around Cranbrook on a tour personalized by Kootenay East MLA and Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett.
Bennett’s tour focused on a key issue for local farmers: the seemingly arbitrary boundaries of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), and how it restricts farmers’ ability to make a living.
“The Agricultural Land Reserve was not the only issue we dealt with on the minister’s tour, but that was the main reason I invited him up – to focus on that,” Bennett told the Townsman.
The Agricultural Land Reserve was established in the 1970s to protect the loss of B.C.’s agricultural land to urbanization. The boundaries encompass 4.7 million hectares of public and private land that may be farmed, forested or vacant. About five per cent of the province is inside the ALR.
Owners of property within the ALR are subject to land use rules that differ from the rest of the province. Because farming is deemed the priority for that property, non-agricultural uses are regulated.
If the property owners wants to subdivide the land, use it for non-farm purposes or exclude it from the ALR, it needs approval by the Agricultural Land Commission.
“I’ve been very frustrated with the way the Agricultural Land Commission operates,” said Bennett. “People who are sitting on a piece of land that is covered by rocks and trees, land that never should have been inside the Agricultural Land Reserve boundaries in the first place, are constantly being turned down when they want to use their own private land – land that they purchased – for purposes of maybe a small subdivision, or maybe they want to put a small campground on it, and they’ve been flummoxed by the land commission for years.
“That to me doesn’t make sense. If it’s good agricultural land, yes, I get it. But in most cases in the East Kootenay, they are turned down even though their land is not fit for agriculture.”
So on Monday, Bennett brought Minister Pimm to the East Kootenay to see for himself what the farming community deals with.
“We toured with the ranching community, and they were very clear: Yes, preserve good farm land, but for goodness sake, land that’s not good farm land, let the people who own it utilize it in a way that will help them economically and help our region in terms of the economic activity,” said Bennett.
Part of Minister Pimm’s tour was a visit to Fort Steele Farms, where long-time owners Mike Malmberg and Sharon Mielnichuk are handing down operation of the successful family business to their daughter, Maxine. Their original request to have a 1.34 acre section of the property subdivided so they could build a home for Maxine’s young family was denied by the ALC.
“They were eventually, just recently, granted the right to build a home. But I wanted the minister to see the situation first hand because I think the decision of the Land Commission (originally) was just plain wrong,” said Bennett.
“I wanted the minister to see that sometimes the decisions of the Agricultural Land Commission in fact do not benefit agriculture, because that farm would have had to be sold.”
Bennett recognized that it’s hard to make a living from farming.
“There is the assumption with the Agricultural Land Commission that somehow or another, these people are making a living off agriculture and they don’t; it’s really difficult. And they will be the first ones to tell you: someone in the family has to have an outside job in order for them to stay on the land. So if there are things that we can do to help them sustain themselves and stay on the land and prevent the land from being sold to somebody who is just going to use it to build a big house on it and not practice any agriculture, then we should be doing that.”
MLA Bennett also took Minister Pimm to Picture Valley Ranch on the banks of the Kootenay River near Wardner to meet owners Lonnie and Jamie Jones.
The ranch has been affected by the flooded Kootenay River, with one field losing about seven feet each year for the past three years to erosion.
“We wanted to show the minister that particular issue with flooding. Our best lands are close to the river in this region; they’re bottom lands,” said Bennett.
To deal with erosion of agricultural land, the river would need to be diked and rip rapp installed.
“It’s a very expensive fix,” said Bennett. “The province doesn’t have any extra money right now but I’m hopeful that we’re going to be able to find some way of helping. There are probably three or four ranches along the Kootenay River that are in that circumstance. This particular ranch is the worst off of any of them.”