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B.C. Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick in March 2013 during his first stint in the role. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)
B.C. Minister of Agriculture Norm Letnick in March 2013 during his first stint in the role. (Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail)

New B.C. agriculture minister steps into ALR quagmire Add to ...

British Columbia’s new agriculture minister is being sworn in Friday to replace a politician who is battling colon cancer.

Norm Letnick will return to his previous post as agriculture minister before Premier Christy Clark bounced him from cabinet after last May’s election.

The Kelowna-Lake Country member of the legislature will now take over from Pat Pimm, who had surgery in January.

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Clark said Pimm needs to focus on his family and health, while Letnick will immediately begin consulting with the agriculture sector.

Pimm, 56, said in January that he planned to continue with his duties and get back to work as soon as possible after the operation.

“I continue to receive treatment and want to thank everyone for their wishes of recovery and support,” he said in a statement Friday. “At this time, I’m placing my focus on my health and full recovery to return to work and appreciate the privacy I need to do that.”

Clark said the protection of farmland is a priority, and Letnick will take on those duties.

Earlier this month, the government introduced plans to make changes to the decades-old Agricultural Land Reserve policy, saying that will give farmers more options in development projects.

The proposed changes to the Agricultural Land Commission open the door to so-called value-added activities such as food processing and potential oil and gas development.

The amendments – the first since land protection laws were put in place more than four decades ago – were welcomed with a wary eye by ranchers, who say an update is long overdue.

The government said the plan preserves the commission’s original purpose as an independent watchdog to protect farmland, but will allow farmers to gain more value from their lands.

The changes are part of the core review of government spending, led by Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett.

He said the amendments will help farmers increase incomes, while supporting increased food production on their land, subject to reviews by regionally appointed officials.

B.C. has about 20,000 farms, and three-quarters of them generate less than $50,000 in sales annually, according to the province. Just 10 per cent of the land within the reserve generates 85 per cent of total farm sales, the government said in a news release.

Amendments would also divide the land reserve into two zones.

In Zone 1, where land is in greater demand, such as in Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island and Okanagan, the commission would focus on protecting farmland. In Zone 2, covering every other region, farmers would have more flexibility in land use.

The commission would remain an independent decision maker on specific land uses within the Agricultural Land Reserve, Bennett said.

The Opposition New Democrats say the Liberals are watering down protections of valuable provincial farmland.

Agriculture critic Nicholas Simons said British Columbians don’t want the province split into separate agricultural zones and would rather have an independent body with a duty to protect all agriculture land.

Last November, Pimm was criticized for his decision to target the removal of 70 hectares of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve. The land removal resulted in a constituent developing rodeo grounds.

The NDP said Pimm was attempting to interfere in a land commission decision and came up with a “secret plan” to dismantle the land reserve.

Last December, Pimm wrote to B.C.’s conflict commissioner, Paul Fraser, asking him to advise all B.C. members of the legislature about situations where their duties collide with the independent commission that protects farmland.

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