Farmer rakes hay in the Fraser Valley. Proposed regulation changes include expanding food processing and allowing breweries or distilleries as well as wineries on farmland.

COLUMN: Farm changes a great leap forward

Restrictions on retail sales from farms and passing on operation to the next generation are a case study in arbitrary state control

VICTORIA – The B.C. government’s intentions for the Agricultural Land Reserve have been clarified by a public consultation that proposes new commercial and industrial uses on farmland.

Political watchers may recall that this was the hill the NDP was prepared to die on this spring. It was going to be a farmland looting spree for right-wing property developers and all hope of “food security” would be dashed.

As I attempted to explain at the time, the changes have little or nothing to do with ALR exclusions. Now a discussion paper poses a series of questions, some of which illustrate the need to bring farmland regulations up to date.

The first one deals with restrictions on retail sales, a case study in arbitrary state control. There is a strict maximum floor space. A minimum one half of retail sales must be produced on that farm. Food packing, preparation and processing are similarly restricted.

This requires multiple duplicate operations of questionable viability. It brings to mind Mao Tse Tung’s Great Leap Forward, where Chinese farmers were forced to have little iron smelting furnaces out back to make tools. But I digress.

“Amongst other things,” the discussion paper says, “lessening the restrictions on on-farm processing could allow the establishment of abbatoirs (large, small or mobile) on farms, to serve surrounding cattle, game or poultry farms.” Then there’s cheese, fruit juice and even medical marijuana products.

And did you know that wineries and cideries are allowed on farmland but breweries, distilleries and meaderies aren’t? (Mead is made from honey, and doesn’t have to be drunk from a bronze mug while wearing a horned helmet.)

Now that we’ve discovered that breweries don’t have to be giant urban industrial plants producing mediocre lager that all tastes the same, possibilities abound.

On-farm wine and cider sales have similarly quaint retail space and product origin restrictions. The government proposes to allow sales of products not made on site, as long as they’re made in B.C.

This could make more local retail beverage co-ops viable. Or it could spawn a wave of unregulated rural liquor stores that create chaos on country roads. You decide.

On a more serious note, there are a couple of questions about changes to the newly created “zone two,” the Interior, Kootenay and North regions. One repeats the government’s intention to open up non-farm use rules to allow certain oil and gas service functions on farmland. This is to reflect the reality already on the ground in the Northeast. What other non-farm activities it may entail is not yet known, as the consultation and regional meetings continue until Aug. 22.

There are proposals to bypass the Agricultural Land Commission for certain kinds of farmland subdivision in zone two. These are where the subdivided parcels are a quarter section (160 acres) or bigger, or where they are divided by a road or waterway.

And finally there are proposed exemptions from ALC scrutiny of leases, to allow “intergenerational transfer,” so retiring farmers don’t have to plead for state permission to remain on their own property. Another exemption would “encourage the use of otherwise unfarmed land by existing or new farmers.”

NDP agriculture critic Lana Popham, who circulated a photo of herself with a samurai sword in a theatrical “Kill Bill 24” campaign, continues to insist that these changes open up 90 per cent of ALR land for “development.”

It’s a hypocritical as well as a misleading statement, since a portion of her own Saanich farm property is rented to a successful craft gin distillery.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

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