Rules and regulations are changing fast as legalization looms in October. (THE NEWS/files)

Pitt Meadows wants pot punted from farmland

Concerned about conversion from growing food to making marijuana

The province’s plan to prune pot production on farmland is a good step forward, but it doesn’t go far enough, says Pitt Meadows Mayor John Becker.

Becker and the rest of Pitt Meadows council are calling for a total ban on all marijuana production within the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Council made the request in a letter Tuesday to B.C. Premier John Horgan, citing a “real sense of fear for the future of our farming community,” and calling for a moratorium on growing marijuana in such areas.

Council has received “numerous” complaints from residents about safety, smell, crime, the letter said. Council asked for the moratorium until a “fulsome” consultation has been done.

Becker said previously that the government should just force the “cash-cow crop” indoors, where high-tech facilities can control odour and noise.

“Marijuana production should be in enclosed facilities where [impact] can be mitigated. Period,” Becker said.

“I’d be much more willing to have a conversation with these producers with respect to a closed facility down in the business park, where noise and odour are completely controlled … but to have these proliferate on agricultural land, just because ag land is cheap, is offensive.”

Last week, the Minister of Agriculture gave cities the power to ban concrete-based, industrial-type production of marijuana on farmland. However, marijuana still can be grown in open fields or greenhouses that still have dirt floors. The announcement doesn’t affect existing facilities.

Becker said the government’s move is vague.

“What it doesn’t address is the conversion of existing operations from whatever they’re producing, be it peppers, lilies or tomatoes – over to cannabis.”

He said six or seven such operations in Pitt Meadows could be in that situation.

Farmland should be kept for growing food, he added.

“This [marijuana] is a recreational item … this is not something that’s critical for the well-being of my community.”

In 2015, B.C. allowed production of medical marijuana to be take place on ALR land. This year, the federal government announced that it will allow pot to be grown in open fields, greenhouses or concrete warehouse-type structures as part of the legalization of recreational pot that takes place in October.

Becker said he found it “absolutely appalling,” that producers are using the right-to-farm legislation to grow marijuana without worrying about impacts on neighbours.

Two Pitt Meadows farmers, though, say that council is over-reacting.

Scott Pelton who runs Fable Farms greenhouses in north Pitt Meadows – producing fresh lettuce – doubts there will be widespread, open-field growing of marijuana, because the yields aren’t as good as crops grown in greenhouses.

He recently sold a five-acre part of his greenhouse operation to a medical marijuana company.

Pitt Meadows’ opposition to marijuana production on farmland is “unreasonable because they’re ignoring the fact that it’s an agricultural crop. I don’t think they have the right to prohibit it because it’s an accepted use of ALR land,” Pelton said.

“I’m outraged that Pitt Meadows is still legally trying to prohibit the growth of a legal product.”

He added that agriculture could be in a state of transition, with many food producers struggling. He compared it to when the wine industry was growing in the Okanagan, displacing the apple orchards.

Producers should have the option to switch crops, if they see fit, Pelton said.

He plans to continue to grow veggies.

“I’m not interested in growing marijuana, at all.”

However, when farmers do change over, it’s being done with corporate partners, he added.

“I don’t know what they’re panicking about. Don’t forget, it’s an election year.”

Sheila Martin, at Erica Enterprises, a blueberry and landscaping plant farm, says the ALR isn’t just for food production. And concrete-based greenhouses are required to ensure productivity.

“It’s the only way you can grow a lot of things.”

There’s also a shortage of industrial space for marijuana grow facilities and concrete buildings can be removed later, if needed, she added.

Martin can live with a marijuana production facility nearby.

“People are always afraid of change. There’s always misunderstanding. It becomes a political football all the time and that really annoys farmers, too. You get tired of being told what we should and shouldn’t be doing.”

Farming is highly regulated, she added.

“From my perspective, we’re not short of land, we’re short of farmers.

In horticulture, “We’re short hundreds of thousands of people. We can’t expand because we simply don’t have the people to do the work.”

In Maple Ridge, Coun. Craig Speirs agrees that farmers should be allowed to put industrial, concrete-based buildings in the ALR for marijuana.

“Why should we restrict farmers from growing a cash crop?”

The government’s announcement Friday may have been given to ease the concerns of cities and it may force growers to stick with food production, he added.

Meanwhile, offers have poured into Golden Eagle Farms, with the Aquilini Investment Group, which has about 5,000 acres of berry fields in Pitt Meadows.

People have been calling either about leasing some of the land or making business deals for growing marijuana, said vice-president Jim Chu.

But said the company is not interested.

“Our company is committed to producing food. We’ve had many proposals from cannabis companies and we’ve turned them all down,” said Chu.

“We have no plans to grow anything other than food.”

The UBCM is also calling for a moratorium on marijuana on farmland.

A statement from the law firm Young Anderson said the province’s announcement “opens the doors” to the cannabis industry because open-field and dirt-based operations are still allowed.

The province said that the federal legalization that takes effect in October will allow growing in open fields.

Young-Anderson, which acts for local governments, says the changes “may expose the ALR to the gold rush of non-medical cannabis production,” increasing prices of land that will make growing food unsustainable.

Pitt Meadows has banned retail pot stores until regulations and revenue sharing have been clarified.

Pitt Meadows, several months ago, implemented a city-wide ban on any marijuana-related activities in the city, but is currently reviewing that to see where that fits with provincial and federal laws.

The city has, however, allowed a marijuana processing facility and created spot zoning to allow that to happen.

Becker is meeting with deputy agriculture minister next week on the cannabis issue.

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