A piece of farmland in South Surrey, described as “the backbone of the local food supply,” is expected to be given an added level of protection by Surrey council next week.
But the man whose family has farmed it for the past 50 years, says it will take more than an agriculture designation to secure the land for future generations.
Tyler Heppell, 28, was responding to an announcement July 6, from the Safe Surrey Coalition (SSC) slate. In it, Coun. Laurie Guerra shared notice of a motion to be brought forward at council’s July 11, meeting calling for the 220-acre parcel at 192 Street and 36 Avenue to be protected from industrial development.
Heppell’s Potatos first made news last month, after a petition was started to protect the farmland, which is leased from the federal government, from being developed into industrial property.
The farm is not in B.C.’s Agricultural Land Reserve, but even if it were, the petition notes, the federal government is not bound by the rules of the ALR.
“Sadly, this exact parcel of farmland is slated to be sold and developed into industrial buildings,” the petition states.
The SSC motion proposes to have the land, currently zoned as Agricultural (A-1), designated Agricultural as part of the Official Community Plan (OCP) review process taking place next year.
“Protecting high-yield agricultural land is fundamental to ensuring future food security in the region and the Province,” notes a second release, this one from the mayor’s office.
In her own release, Surrey First Coun. Linda Annis called it “a hollow promise,” as long as the land is listed as A-1.
“The mayor knows this, and he also knows how easy it is to change that designation, something he did in Campbell Heights.”
More than just a piece of land
As of Friday morning (July 8) the Heppell Farm petition on change.org had nearly 50,000 signatures, but, ultimately, Heppell would like to see it receive twice that number to help demonstrate just how crucial it is that the property be maintained as farmland.
“This is the most productive pieces of farmland in Surrey for sure, if not in all of B.C.” Heppell told Peace Arch News during a tour of the property Thursday.
The Heppell family has been farming this piece of land for 50 years, along with another farm in Cloverdale, which has been in the family for 102 years, he explained.
The Heppells produce up to 50 million servings of vegetables each year. This includes potatoes, cabbages, carrots, parsnips and squash, which are sold in grocery stores and at farmer’s markets around the province,
“This land is actually irreplaceable. We plant the first potatoes in Canada (each spring) … the productivity of this land cannot ever be replaced, but you can build buildings really anywhere,” Heppell said.
Because the land produces some of the earliest local vegetables, they are able to sell immediately to BC Fresh to be put into supermarkets, encouraging companies to buy from local growers rather than take their business to international sellers.
“This land is really important to all farmers in B.C. … it’s the backbone of local food supply,” Heppell said.
Its success comes down to sandy soil and elevation, which allows for good drainage. That’s especially helpful given the amount of rain Surrey and the province see yearly, he said.
“It’s almost a little piece of California here in British Columbia.”
Earlier this spring season, farms across the Lower Mainland were struggling to get their crops started due to heavy rainfall and cold weather.
Although delayed by a couple weeks, the Campbell Heights land was producing crops just shy of four weeks earlier than other farms in the province.
“There is no other piece of land like this in British Columbia. Not only does it produce the first potatoes and carrots and cabbage, it also produces some of the latest, too. You can’t really harvest potatoes and carrots in late October because you get frost and a lot of rain, but carrots will come out from this land in November sometimes,” he said.
What is the best solution?
What Heppell would like to see happen is for the land be purchased by the City of Surrey and turned into a dedicated agricultural park. This would make developing the land impossible, regardless of the federal government’s wishes – making it essentially untouchable, Heppell said.
While any steps by the City are reassuring to Heppell, the real challenge, he said, is getting the federal government to make a move.
“It’s a really good step in the right direction, but it’s not binding. It honestly doesn’t matter if it’s under (ALR protection) or not, the federal government has the power… All it takes is one signature from the federal government and they can disregard what the City of Surrey wants.”
Uncertain future for farmers
Heppell started working on his family’s farm six months ago, making him a fifth generation farmer. He works on the property daily, alongside his father and grandfather.
While he is passionate about saving farmland, he’s found that other young Canadians are not quite as eager to step into the business.
Losing the Campbell Heights land to development will only make the situation worse, he said.
“When you get rid of pieces of land like this that almost make it easy to farm, I don’t see why anyone my age or younger would want to get into farming,” he said.
“We have to remain optimistic because we were told that this would be an uphill battle by everyone … we’re not done, we’re not going to go down without a bit of a fight.”
Although losing the land would be a blow to the Heppell family, the real consequence is the after-effects developing the land will have, he said.
“If we pave over our most productive farmland, where do we draw the line in the sand? What land is safe?
“This just doesn’t give much hope to the next generation of farmers when we drive through Campbell Heights and we see land that used to be super good for farming and it’s now industrial or warehouses.
“It’s not really encouraging.”