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Agriculture critic begs for action from Kelowna at weekend Liberal conference

NDP MLAs Lana Popham, who founded an organic winery on the Island and served as agriculture critic for four years, and new agriculture critic Nicholas Simons were in Kelowna urging residents and farmers to take action on the proposed changes for agriculture. - Jennifer Smith
NDP MLAs Lana Popham, who founded an organic winery on the Island and served as agriculture critic for four years, and new agriculture critic Nicholas Simons were in Kelowna urging residents and farmers to take action on the proposed changes for agriculture.
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

Despite thousands of Instagram photos (#felfies), emails and tweets logged to protest changes to the Agricultural Land Commission and the farmland reserve it protects, the NDP agriculture critic fully expects Bill 24 to pass next week.

Nicholas Simons and fellow NDP MLA Lana Popham staged an emergency meeting in Kelowna Thursday, saying the Bill 24 Amendments to the Agricultural Land Commission could pass as early as Thursday unless someone takes a stand.

Simons said he has never seen such an onslaught of resistance on a single issue and urged residents and farmers to make their feelings known at the provincial Liberal convention.

"We're hoping that if we don't convince the government to withdraw this legislation that we'll at least create enough awareness within the general public that they aren't going to get away with what they thought they were going to get away with," he said, handing the mic to his colleague.

Popham was less circumspect.

"As far as I'm concerned Bill 24 basically says: You know what? You better think of something better to do that pays better and I think that's despicable," she said.

Noting the legislation caters to the development lobby of MLA Bill Bennett, who drafted it, she claimed to have crashed a meeting he held with farmers where he said his constituents have never liked the 40-year-old reserve and he listens to his constituents.

That's a slap in the face for growers of all stripes throughout B.C. as she sees it.

"This is the window that we've been waiting for as agriculture, as farmers, but also as eaters because we're now moving back to where we came from—which is the local food movement.

"…People believe in local food; they believe in consultation; and they believe in democracy," she said.

She told the room the Liberal MLAs are lying when they say stakeholders were consulted, they're lying about the real purpose of the legislation and ignoring the wishes of the electorate.

Earlier in the day, Popham released confidential correspondence from Agricultural Land Commission chairman Richard Bullock to the deputy agriculture minister, which "basically discounts all arguments for Bill 24," in her reading.

The letter confirms that there wasn't any consultation with the ALC as late as December and goes into a detailed explanation of the flaws in each section of the legislation. It highlights concerns over the move back to decision making by regional panels, in particular, and the fact there is plenty of prime agricultural land in areas now deemed zone two and given less protections.

"This has been a complete sham right from the beginning," she said. "…The passion I have around this bill is so huge, and the prospects of what it will do to us in the future, is something that I can't stand by and watch.…

"For me, Bill 24 is a hill to die on. I don't know what it's going to take, (but) it might just kill me."

Both politicians said the bill effectively gets it backward, saving land in the south when climate change suggests it will be the north of the province where crops are more likely to thrive moving forward.

"We don't need a bill for agriculture, we need strong agricultural policy," said Popham, before calling for the legislation to be removed from the table.

The MLAs urged residents of Kelowna, farmers and constituents of both the current and former agriculture ministers Norm Letnick and Steve Thomson to turn the tables and stand up as the BC Liberal Convention gets underway.

"This is a heavy-hitting town," said Popham. "…It's you that can make the difference. We are doing our best in the legislature, but it's the public who make the difference."

The pitch didn't sit with BC Fruit Growers' Association president Fred Steele.

Steele believes Letnick has agriculture's best interest at heart and he doesn't want to see the bill thrown out.

The fruit growers do not agree with dividing agricultural land into two zones, protecting some land more than others, but Steele stressed the farmers want a future for agriculture with vision more than they want to dicker over the changes proposed.

"We understand that cities need room in order to grow because we are the ones that feed those cities. Industry also needs land because we need jobs. So it's not a case of pitting one against the other. We need a plan. That is what is important," said Steele.

Active local NDP member Tish Lakes said the two zones may be hard to stop as placing the north in the second zone, intended to have more room to maneuver for applicants looking to trade or remove lands from ALR protections, would make it easier to drive through liquid natural gas and oil and gas pipelines.

A young man from a craft brewery who did not identify himself said the lack of planning in the new agriculture bill is clear when one considers his business. Liquor laws are being changed to accommodate the growth of his industry, he said, and yet the government is threatening the very crops he'll need to produce his beer.

It might be time to take the farmer protests further and dump some manure on the steps of the legislature, added South Okanagan grape grower Hans Buchler, noting he is disappointed farmers have not managed enough pressure to slow progress of the bill.

 

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