The old swamp known as Panama Flats can grow food, and there’s no reason to wait, according to a Saanich councillor and food security advocate.
First-term Saanich Coun. Nathalie Chambers says there’s nothing holding Saanich back from leasing the fertile land of Panama Flats to farmers during the dry season, even if most of the 26.5-hectare parcel is covered in water during the winter season. It’s an easy solution to start chipping away at the Island’s ongoing food security issue, something she’s been advocating for most of her adult life.
“There are all the indicators of a healthy ecosystem – frogs, all kinds of birds, and bees, you can tell there’s bees here because of the [dense] Himalayan blackberry,” said Chambers, an agricultural advocate who lives and works at Madrona Farm in the Blenkinsop Valley. “When we talk about ‘farming’ I am not talking about conventional methods… I am talking about agro-ecology and the fact farmland benefits many species. And in fact, birds, bees and frogs are signature wildlife indicators of sustainable agriculture.”
The Vantreight farming family owned Panama Flats initially. They leased it to the Galey brothers who farmed it for more than 25 years until last decade. Then Vantreight sold it to a group called Island Berry. By 2010, Island Berry began infilling the flats with dirt, building most of the existing berms that now cross the field and rise above the winter flood. Then Saanich council, led by former mayor Frank Leonard, were limited in what they could do, Leonard recalled.
“Owners complained that the municipality was using private property as a flood plain, which it was,” Leonard recalled.
Add to that the infill and Saanich council was “motivated to have a wetland for storm water storage,” he said, adding, “We lawyered up, it was the only way we could slow them.”
Early in the process of considering a purchase of the land, Saanich staff made a key discovery, that a Saanich sewer pipe runs through the park portion of the northwest corner of the flats.
“Saanich had never acquired a right of way, so that was the tipping point in terms of us deciding to acquire it,” Leonard said. “We didn’t give away the card that we were going to have to pay money one way or another.”
Council approved a deal in February 2011 to give Island Berry $910,000 in cash and an exchange of surplus lands owned by Saanich that amounted to about $2.4 million total. One parcel of land was at Carey and Cherry roads (which was subsequently developed into a nine-lot subdivision with single-family homes in 2013) with another three-lot subdivision at Carey and Roy roads.
The plan was to protect Panama Flats – the West Saanich parcel of land between Carey, Interurban and Roy roads – as a flood plain, a nature refuge and parkland, and also to farm part of it. Originally a swamp drained for agricultural purposes, Panama Flats’s water storage is important for “downstream flood abatement” in the Colquitz River, reads a CRD report.
In 2013 Saanich tried to add a 14.5 ha swath in the middle of Panama Flats to the agricultural reserve (eight of the 26.5 ha property is already in the ALR) however, it ran into barriers with the ALC.
Five years later Saanich’s current agricultural draft plan once again identifies the production of food on Panama Flats as a priority action.
“Ray Galey was the farmer with the pizzazz to farm this place,” Chambers said. “This is how we do sustainable farming. Panama dries up in the summer, it’s called ‘summer starch land,’ where you plant and grow later in the season, July to September. There’s even a massive warehouse here to store equipment and sort food.”
Based on the minimal spring and summer rainfall the South Vancouver Island has received in recent years the growing season could start earlier, she said, adding onions, carrots, potatoes, squash, corn and pumpkins all grow well in that type of land.
However, an up-front investment of infrastructure would have to happen first, starting with the removal of the berms, which are made of fill that Leonard believes may have come from construction sites.
A farmer familiar with site speculated the berms would need to come out and drainage installed, as well as irrigation.
That said, the neighbourhood knows it’s a treasure, “they support this place,” Chambers said.