Opinion

ALR debate skirts general farming issue

 

The proposed BC Liberal government has opened up another can of worms with its proposed changes to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) and the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

Before 1973, when this reserve was created, the province was losing an increasing amount of productive farm land to urban development. This amount was dramatically reduced with the introduction of the nearly 5 million hectares of ALR land. Land is added to and taken from this reserve every year, often at the urging of land owners.

The changes involve leaving Zone 1 ALR land restrictions (in places like the Okanagan and Vancouver Island)  in place and making it easier to remove lands or lease them for non-agricultural purposes in Zone 2, which is mainly in the north and interior--including the East Kootenay.

Opponents of the plan point out that there was no public consultation and the changes don’t appear to be science-based. They also point out that arable land will now become a beacon for developers--and developers would probably want to use the best land possible. They also object because face it, the world’s population is growing and land that is set aside for food production should be worth more than any monetary value we can attach to it.

Proponents of the plan like that they would have more flexibility in leasing out their property, along with it being easier to have another business on the property. In some cases, the new legislation would make it not as difficult to remove a piece of their property from the ALR altogether. Should this legislation pass, property currently in Zone 2 will become more valuable as many restrictions will be eased. That prospect alone has to make some ALR property owners interested in Bill 24 passing.

And so both sides keep arguing their very valid points. But the debate seems to be skirting the elephant in the room—it is nearly impossible to afford to be a small scale farmer anymore and even some of the larger players are nearly played out.

Farming has always been a business where the margins are tight and much of the ALR controversy is about working these margins just so a farmer can survive.

A report put together by the National Farmers Union in 2008, called “The Farm Crisis and the Cattle Sector: Toward a New Analysis and New Solutions”, laid out a bleak reality for cattle farmers—an industry alive in the East Kootenay.

The report observed that, adjusted for inflation, the national average price for a hundred weight for slaughter steers was $174 between 1942 and 1989. In 2008, the same weight netted around $85.

“How can this be?,” asked the authors of the report. “In the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, using packing plants that were comparatively inefficient, paying workers 22% more, serving a smaller market, and selling to less-affluent consumers, the system was able to pass back to farmers twice as much per animal.”

This halving of profit came at a time when the packers made their plants super-efficient, cut wages and ramped up production, mainly for export. It noted that most of the small packers, who used to compete with each other, have also been bought out by large corporations who immediately cut the pay to the feedlots, and making it nearly impossible for farmer’s to sell their animals at a decent rate. As well, packers now own more of their own cattle, a development that allows them to cut prices paid to the farmer while they use up their own stock. That is a simplified analysis of the report’s conclusions.

As the food business becomes ever more corporate, these problems, in various ways, are increasingly being shared with non-cattle farmers.

Now If farming was a business that paid the owners fairly, chances are most would be happy with the current ALR. Farmer’s would have to work outside of the farm far less, the land would be worth more in resale and the current restrictions and bureaucracy wouldn’t seem so onerous.

But it is not and while the Farmers’ Union report laid out some suggestions such as developing and encouraging local food, a better balance with domestic consumption vs. export and collective marketing agencies—all would require government (federal and provincial) will to succeed. Governments, unfortunately, have a poor track record when it comes to siding with working people over conglomerates.

And that seems to be what inspires such passion in the ALR argument. The proposed ALR legislation is a big deal but ultimately it is a distraction from something truly disturbing that has happened to our once-mighty agricultural sector.  Farmers are incredibly hard-working people who are used to sacrificing to stay on their land. We, as a country, have allowed this sector to be taken advantage of and as long as that is the case, debates over the smallest margins will be argued heatedly.

What else can a farmer do?

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