There are 180 farms in Pitt Meadows, generating $60 million in farm gate receipts and employing 1,500 people.
Among B.C. municipalities, Pitt ranks sixth for agricultural production. It grows 20 per cent of B.C.’s blueberry crop, as well as cranberries, greenhouse vegetables and flowers.
However, of more than 7,000 hectares of available farmland, only about 4,000 ha is being farmed, suggesting the city could almost double its farming sector.
Pitt Meadows is not unique in this regard, as there are approximately 20,000 ha of fallow farm land in the Metro region, but it is the municipality with the second highest inventory of unused ALR land.
The challenge is in finding people who are qualified to farm, who can afford to invest, and who have access to farm land, explained Kent Mullinix, Kwantlen Polytechnical University’s director of sustainable agriculture and food security.
A new farmer can’t afford to obtain a mortgage for farmland in the region.
“You couldn’t make the payments – there is no agriculture that would service that level of debt,” said Mullinix.
The price of the land is driven up by its speculative value for commercial or residential development, he explained. Even though farmland is supposed to be protected in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), exemptions are granted by the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), and that opportunity increases its value.
“There is not a square inch of farmland in the Lower Mainland that is not valued as speculation,” he said.
In general, farming is not an attractive business proposition. Despite the need for millions in investment to start any type of farm, the margins of profit are narrow.
He quotes Garnet Etsell, chair of the B.C. Agriculture Council, who said in 2011 that B.C. has lost 25 per cent of its farms over the past 10 years, and that agriculture cannot compete economically for land. Farming is an industry worth $2.5 billion in this province, but it lost $87 million in 2010.
Mullinix wants to reform agriculture in B.C. and protect farmland with a number of government-led initiatives.
First, he wants to take the speculative value out of farmland by “taxing it away.” He proposes development fees high enough that developers reap little or no profit from projects in the ALR. He concedes that it would be a controversial measure.
“We have a whole North American economy based on private property rights,” he said, adding people expect to be able to do “whatever they want” with their land.
“It would be hugely unpopular,” he said.
A second measure would be re-regionalize agriculture, so that food production, processing, marking and waste handling are all handled in the geographic area that will be consuming the food that is produced. He said this effort could put billions of dollars back into the regional economy of the Lower Mainland, and his study team is working to quantify how much.
“The place to start is in understanding what the potential is.”
He sees strong public support for these efforts. Food security is an issue receiving more public attention, and the popularity of the 100 Mile Diet shows people care about regional food production.
“People want to have this kind of agriculture around them – it’s who we are,” said Mullinix. “It will enrich our lives more than development ever will.”
Thirdly, he said the government needs to prepare a new generation of “food sector leaders,” because expertise is leaving the agriculture industry.
Mullinix said the project needs the support of municipalities, and municipal leaders in Maple Ridge, Abbotsford, Mission, Langley and Langley Township have all expressed theirs.
“Municipalities working together can make this happen, and they will accrue the benefits.”
However, he characterizes his project’s reception by the Pitt Meadows Agriculture Advisory Committee as lukewarm.
The co-chairman of that committee, Leo Captein, agrees with the need to protect farmland. He says there should be government incentives to help producers get started.
“The capital projects are humongous, and for young people it’s not easy – it’s millions in investment,” said Captein.
However, there is little else governments can do to ensure farmland in Pitt Meadows or elsewhere in B.C. is in production.
“To say ‘You must farm,’ I can’t see that happening,” said Captein.
Following the status quo could eventually mean the loss of the Lower Mainland as a farm region, said Mullinix.
“It would be a travesty of considerable proportion,” he said. “It represents some of Canada’s best farmland capacity.”
Globally, populations are growing and farmland is being lost.
“It’s a precious resource, and every one of our lives depends on it. We will feed the world from land-based agriculture.”