Farmers find themselves on the outside

Fort Steele Farm faces crisis over agricultural land commission’s refusal to allow subdivision.

An aerial view of Fort Steele Farms

An aerial view of Fort Steele Farms

A local farming family is reeling after their plan to pass on the business to a daughter was effectively shut down by the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC).

Sharon Mielnichuk and Mike Malmberg want to sell Fort Steele Farm to their daughter, Maxine Malmberg, and her husband, Russ Sheppard. The farm lies in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), so they applied to the ALC to have a small piece of the farm subdivided off, where Mike and Sharon could live in their retirement.

But the ALC denied the subdivision request, instead suggesting that Mike and Sharon live in a manufactured home on the property.

Mielnichuk and Malmberg have owned and operated Fort Steele Farm since 1979, first as a commercial egg layer operation then as a roadside farm market. The farm produces honey, eggs, berries, more than 15 vegetable species, and includes a full-scale bakery.

The farm hosts more than 500 students from kindergarten through Grade 3 annually from more than a dozen different schools. It also hosts outings from seniors complexes, special needs groups and youth organizations. It employs more than 10 people during peak season.

After more than 30 years running the farm, though, Sharon and Mike are finding it more and more difficult to keep up with the physically draining work.

They began to think about what would happen to the beloved home and business. The choice seemed to be to sell the entire property, or seriously reduce production to a scale they could keep up with in their retirement.

“The size of the parcel and its location make it highly desirable to new owners with no agricultural interest,” said Mielnichuk. “In either case, the agricultural production and opportunities on the parcel of land would be diminished. As farmers who have devoted a large portion of our lives to developing the agricultural potential of this parcel, these options are not very palatable to us.”

Fortunately, one of Sharon and Mike’s four children, Maxine, offered to take over the family business, and has moved to the property from Edmonton with her husband, Russ, and their two small children.

Together, the family drafted a succession plan that would see Maxine and Russ learn the business gradually, with Sharon and Mike on hand to transfer their know-how.

The Malmberg family applied to the ALR to have a 0.54 hectare (1.34 acre) section of their property separated from the farm, leaving a 6.26 hectare (15.46 acre) remainder. Sharon and Mike wished to build their retirement home on the small section, so they could stay on their home of 34 years and provide guidance for Maxine and Russ as they take over operating the business.

The subdivided parcel is not arable, their application pointed out, consisting of a gullied area that isn’t suitable for irrigated vegetable production.

In August, the Regional District of East Kootenay threw its support behind the Malmberg’s application, feeling that it was a prime example of retaining agriculture in the family and community.

However, in a meeting of the ALC on November 20, 2012, the Fort Steele Farm application to subdivide was refused.

A report of the decision sent to Mike and Sharon on January 2 states: “The Commission believes the regulation provides and opportunity for succession without subdivision.”

The letter also points out that the ALR allows for one home with a secondary suite, or a second house as long as it is a manufactured home less than nine metres in length for use by an immediate member of the owner’s family.

The ALC did not respond to an interview request by the Townsman before press time.

Now, the family is reeling from a decision that makes it harder to continue farming on the property.

“The decision, in its solution, degrades the profession of agriculture,” said Mielnichuk. “We think that this decision not only has ramifications for us personally but the industry as well and points out the fallacy of the ALR.”

After more than 30 years dedicated to the farming profession, the couple is being denied the chance to retire comfortably, the family feels.

“The profession of agriculture is a difficult one where an individual makes many sacrifices to keep the business operating and the production of food continuing. Part of the compensation is for the farmer to be able to live their last days in comforts afforded to others. To tell me that I should live in a manufactured home restricts my rights and freedoms and is a slap in the face to someone who has dedicated their life to an honourable profession,” said Mielnichuk.

After the ALC notified the Regional District of East Kootenay about its decision on Fort Steele Farm last month, the board of directors decided to send a letter to the Commission explaining why its recent decisions are hurting farmers throughout the region.

Area E Director Jane Walter said that while Fort Steele Farm is a particularly valuable property for the region, the Malmberg family is not alone in their issues with the ALC.

“It’s happening everywhere in this area,” said Walter.

“What I am finding in this area is older people can’t continue to farm. Their health is preventing them from doing it. But they don’t want to move. They want to stay on their land.”

By denying their applications to build a second home, the ALC is not protecting agricultural land, she went on.

“When we are fortunate enough to have a young family member wanting to do it, they are saying no.

“The ALC cannot force them to farm. So the land is just sitting there not producing anything.

“Some of these farms are being sold, but it’s not farmers buying it. It’s people buying it for recreation, so they can run their quads and hunt. They are not ever intending to farm.”

It’s a scenario Walter said she has seen over and over again in the East Kootenay: ranchers and farmers who simply can’t make it work.

“Originally the ALR was put up to protect farming. I think in the end now, it’s hurting farming,” said Walter.

Now, Malmberg and Mielnichuk are faced with a decision: lease or sell the farm to their daughter and build a manufactured home to live in, or sell the property to an outsider and accept that it may not be used for farming by the new owner.

“The decision of the ALC forces us to look at other options,” said Mielnichuk. “Those options are more costly and thus put the agricultural operation at greater financial risk.”

Russ Sheppard said the ALC is degrading a vital part of Canadian culture.

“By denying these types of applications and not providing provisions for a retiring farmer to have a ‘proper’ dwelling and one that they have earned, the ALC is showing a complete disregard for a major part of Canadian culture,” said Sheppard. “To dictate the type and size of dwelling is reprehensible and discriminatory. I think it throws out 200-plus years of culture in an attempt to control land use.”