Hubert Pomerleau picks Red Delicious apples from an orchard in Summerland in this 2016 photo. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, fruit growers throughout British Columbia will face additional challenges. (Summerland Review file photo)

COLUMN: Efforts preserve and promote local agriculture

Farming will remain an important element in the region

Agriculture and agriculture-related businesses have long been a strong economic driver in Summerland.

This sector is an important and sustaining part of our history. According to the Summerland Museum website, the first commercial orchard was planted on pre-empted land in 1888.

The Dominion Experimental Farm (now Pacific Agri-Food Research Centre or PARC) opened in 1914 “to help aspiring farmers and orchardists, many of whom had little experience with the practicalities of fruit farming.”

Through the 1900s, packinghouses, canneries and other industries related to fruit growing provided much of the employment in the Summerland area. The first winery opened in 1981, starting the move for wine grapes to join tree fruits as a major crop.

Today, more than 30 per cent of the land within Summerland’s boundaries — approximately 2,781 hectares — is in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

The Agricultural Land Commission, through the provincial Agricultural Land Commission Act, works with roughly 150 local governments in B.C. as it “supports coordinated and collaborative planning to ensure agricultural lands are protected.”

Summerland’s Official Community Plan, Agricultural Plan, Cultural Plan and other community-driven documents attest to the value residents place on agriculture.

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Farming will continue to be a strong economic driver for decades to come because Summerland is home to knowledgeable and innovative farmers. We also have the all-important agricultural triad of natural resources: soil, water and climate.

Council also continues to play a role in advancing regional food initiatives.

Through a Rural Dividend Fund grant, in 2019 the district hired a Summerland consultant to develop a proposal for the South Okanagan Food Innovation and Processing Hub.

The hub, based in Summerland, will build regional (Thompson-Okanagan) agri-food capacity and connect food and agri-tech entrepreneurs to the resources they need to develop, commercialize and market food products. This will create a more sustainable, ecologically resilient and economically robust regional food system.

The hub’s proposal was completed and presented to potential partners in April; the district expects to submit the proposal in June if the province is still able to commit funding to ministry of agriculture’s BC Food Hub Network initiative.

The Okanagan Bioregion Food System project, a two-year research project being conducted in the Okanagan by the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, was funded, in part, by the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen, with support from member municipalities, including Summerland.

The report, expected by the end of 2020, will provide policymakers with quantifiable data on the economic, environmental, and social opportunities of moving to a more regionalized food system.

The report will also identify policy gaps and barriers at all levels of government and make recommendations on how these can be addressed and removed.

In 2018 at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention, I attended a session covering an advisory committee’s interim report on recommendations on revitalizing the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission. The ALR/ALC revitalization advisory committee was established by the agriculture ministry and included members with varying perspectives and expertise in land use planning, resource management, the ALR/ALC and agriculture.

The land reserve is the land in B.C. set aside (reserved) for agriculture; the land commission is “an independent administrative tribunal dedicated to preserving agricultural land and encouraging farming in British Columbia.”

The Agricultural Land Commission Act is the legislative framework under which the ALC operates.

The presentation identified two urgent needs: that the province shift to an ‘Agriculture First’ focus in the land reserve, and that speculation and non-farm impacts on land in the reserve be curbed. (The final report added two more issues requiring immediate government action: include the land commission in decision-making and provide the resources necessary to ensure successful revitalization.)

A discussion paper to assist with stakeholder consultation and public engagement was released in February 2018. The UBCM’s submission to the agriculture advisory committee stated, among other things, that: “The preservation of farmland and food security are intertwining issues. Over the past 10 years, UBCM members have endorsed multiple resolutions calling for increased provincial food production, increased availability of local produce and farm products, and better support for farmers.”

Toni Boot is the mayor of Summerland.

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