An idea for an agri-food and farming hub that sprouted a few years ago is taking root as the North Fraser Centre, which Christian Cowley would like to get growing as soon as possible.
And he thinks the old Jackson Farm in Albion, on 102nd Avenue, would be an ideal place for a centre that would put a focus on farming.
The centre could occupy about half of the farm’s 39 acres and offer hands-on and business courses in farming, in partnership with B.C. universities.
A community garden, farmer’s market, and crops grown for restaurants and kitchens could be part of the operation, which would start small, then gradually build.
Cowley is with the Community Education on Environment and Development Centre, which is leading the proposal.
The centre doesn’t have to go in that location, but for Cowley, it makes sense, although it would require lots of explaining to show how it would fit in a location that’s intended to be a park.
“It’s really a matter of communicating that well, and helping people understand, this was a farm, it was a working farm.”
“It would be true to its actual history.”
A community effort in resulted in the city saving Jackson Farm from development in 2011 with plans to turn it into a park.
Stuart Pledge, with the Friends of Jackson Farm, hasn’t heard about the CEED Centre proposal.
“My understanding is that Jackson Farm is designated as future park land.”
Parks staff have said that before any decisions are made about Jackson Farm, a public process will take place.
“Our goal is to have the farm developed as a passive park. It’s a proposal that would cost very little,” and be accessible to everyone, Pledge added.
Maple Ridge council heard the presentation from the CEED Centre last fall, when it asked for the city’s general support for the concept of a farm centre and for permission to use the True North Fraser branding program that was announced in 2013.
But the key part of the request to the city is for it to provide about 20 acres for the centre, at no charge, for five years, after which the centre should turn a profit and lease payments could be made.
So far, the city hasn’t responded.
Other locations for the farm centre could be Albion flats, near 105th Avenue and Lougheed Highway, Cowley told council on Tuesday.
The Agricultural Land Commission has said that land on the west side of 105th Avenue must remain in the reserve.
However, the land has poor drainage and also would require measures to protect fish-rearing habitat in Spencer Creek, which flows through the Albion flats.
“It does provide some extra challenges that you wouldn’t find on Jackson Farm,” Cowley said.
“There may be other properties in Maple Ridge that are already publicly owned that may be more advantageous. It’s really not tied to any one site.”
The idea of a farm centre isn’t a new one and was first considered as part of the B.C. Jobs Plan discussions from four years ago.
“This concept directly draws from all of these plans. That’s because it’s something that’s been stated that the community desires.”
A key part of the farm centre is creating an agri-food hub, where small-scale farmers could bring their crops and pool them with other farmers for better and cheaper distribution.
“The upside for Maple Ridge as a city is to actually put into agricultural production, its small-lot farms,” Cowley.
“We would run it as a social enterprise and we would actually be generating income from it and selling to local restaurants.”
With universities becoming involved, it could begin the process of bringing post-secondary education to Maple Ridge, which has been the goal of the North Fraser Education Task force.
Cowley said features for the public such as community gardens, a farmer’s market, interpretive programs, public harvesting or courses on grafting, gardening, would fit well within Jackson Farm.
“There would have to be a very good communication plan. Some people have their hearts set on it being an amphitheatre park. And if they were to see greenhouses … they would possibly have a reaction to that.”
Cowley said the idea goes back to previous councils adding that farm centres are common in the U.S.
He said the Metro Vancouver market for produce is $5 billion a year. He said it’s still unrealistic to expect to grow large volumes of food indoors under computerized systems. “Are we riding around in flying cars right now?”
“You’re not seeing them for good reason. They’re not practical.”