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The Agricultural Land Reserve, created in April of 1973, still shields arable land from urban sprawl. Without it, food insecurity could be much worse today

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Mike Romaine, owner of an organic farm near Victoria, was part of efforts to map out the Agricultural Land Reserve that B.C. created in the 1970s.Photography by Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Healing Farm packs a wallop of diversity into a small space. Half of the seven-hectare property, located just a 15-minute drive from downtown Victoria, is a magical remnant of old growth forest, fed by natural springs and populated by barred owls. The other half, on a gentle southeast-facing slope, is given over for organic food production, including almost 200 varieties of fruit and nut trees.

More than a century ago, this was a cattle ranch, but the property was overtaken by brambles when Mike and Sharyn Romaine purchased it almost 20 years ago.

The Romaines planted orchards, installed bee hives, and built a free-range pen for 400 Miller Brown hens. The 135-year-old barn is packed with modern processing equipment for all the products made on site. In one section, eggs are cleaned, graded and packed. In another, any less-than-perfect fruit is turned into juice, jam and dehydrated chips. A nearby shack is reserved for making maple syrup tapped from the bigleaf maples in the forest.

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Chickens and nectarine blossoms are part of Mr. Romaine's operation at Healing Farm.

This land, given its proximity to the city, would have been gobbled up for housing long ago, but for a policy decision made 50 years ago.

British Columbia’s small portion of arable land – the verdant valley bottoms and deltas – was being converted to housing and shopping malls at a rate of 6,000 hectares each year when Dave Barrett’s New Democratic Party government came to power in 1972.

That government did what no other province was willing to do then, or since. It passed a law in April of 1973 to preserve the province’s capacity to produce food through the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve.

The reserve, which limits use of the land for agriculture, applies to the almost five per cent of the province that is deemed to be capable of being farmed productively.

Mr. Romaine was a bureaucrat who helped map out the ALR, and after a career in land stewardship, he wanted to forge his own connection with the soil in retirement.

Without the ALR, “all of this would be gone,” he says, waving a worn hand at fruit tree blossoms that were buzzing with bees on a warm spring afternoon.

While controversy swirls around the Ontario government’s plan to turn over some of the Toronto Greenbelt for housing – a potential windfall for the wealthy developer friends of Premier Doug Ford – B.C.’s arms-length Agricultural Land Commission built a wall between politics and land speculators, and still serves as a bulwark against urban sprawl. It’s a barrier, however, that’s constantly tested under the pressure for new development.

Fruit trees bloom around Mr. Romaine's farm. There are about 200 kinds of fruit and nut trees on one half of the seven-hectare property, and beehives to pollinate them; the other half is old-growth forest. Without the ALR, 'all of this would be gone,' he says.

There are those among us who tend to assume that British Columbia is a land of boundless resources to be freely exploited under the guise of ‘progress’,” Agriculture Minister David Stupich wrote in 1972, announcing the intent to protect farmland.

Armed with the newly-produced Canada Land Inventory, B.C. had scientific evidence of the limits of the province’s ability to produce food. “It is essential that every effort be made to ensure that such land be preserved, not only in the interests of our agricultural industry itself, but for the common good as well.”

Mary Rawson was one of the first commissioners who helped set the boundaries of the ALR. “We came in to yells and screams,” she recalled.

Landowners who found their lands frozen for agricultural purposes were not happy, and the commission was flooded with angry calls and letters.

Successive governments have sought to curb the land commission’s authority, but the institution has proved durable.

“Despite being battered and bruised and attacked and ignored by governments of every stripe, somehow, miraculously, it is still here,” said Joan Sawicki, who was one the commission’s original staff. Ms. Sawicki later quit her cabinet post in protest when the NDP government of the 1990s attempted to overrule the commission in favour of development.

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Signs in Saanichton advertise wheat berries, lentils and flour for sale. Farms such as these, in close proximity to urban areas, are one of the legacies of the ALR.

B.C.’s agriculture sector makes up less than one per cent of the province’s gross domestic product, so as an industry, it carries little clout in government.

It’s cheaper to import a pear from Australia or a tomato from Mexico than it is to buy local. And that, Ms. Sawicki said, is because the province has not maintained the promised aid to farmers that was supposed to accompany the land reserve in order to make them economically viable.

“We have fallen down on supporting farmers and protecting the farm community,” says Ms. Sawicki.

There is a value to local farming, however, that is not measured in pure dollars. A 2020 Metro Vancouver report estimates that B.C only produces one-third of its own food, making it vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain.

While the province has industrial-scale farms producing supply-managed dairy, poultry and eggs, there are also thousands of small farms that cut the distance between grower and consumer.

The importance of local food production became apparent in the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic prompted border closures that disrupted international supply chains. In November of 2021, the flow of imports and exports were stalled again when extreme weather cut off all rail and highway routes between Vancouver and the B.C. Interior – isolating Canada’s biggest port for more than a week.

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Flooded fields in Abbotsford in November of 2021, after an 'atmospheric river' of rain inundated much of the Lower Mainland.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

Without ALR, says dairy farmer Jennifer Dyson, the province’s food insecurity would be much worse. “There would be no agriculture today on Vancouver Island, in the lower mainland, in the Okanagan,” says Ms. Dyson, who raises water buffalo in the Alberni Valley, and is the current chair of the Agricultural Land Commission.

Despite the commission’s value to the region, as it marks its 50th birthday, it still faces a barrage of applications for exclusions – each asking for a small nibble of the whole. “It would be death by guppy bites,” she said.

The insatiable demand for real estate is only growing more acute. A 2016 Globe and Mail investigation tracked how investors and speculators exploit loopholes to build mega mansions and other unintended development on protected farmland, driving up land prices. Today, realtors routinely promote ALR properties for developing luxury estates with low farm taxes.

“We never can take our foot off the gas,” Ms. Dyson said.

Bryce Rashleigh of Saanichton Farms grows barley for a Victoria brewery. In a storage area, silos, combines and other equipment are kept for the busy season ahead. In the storefront, eggs pile up behind bags of wheat berries.

Although the ALR saved farmland near the cities, the commission watches as farmers disappear from that land, due to lack of financial support.

On the first sunny day in April, Bryce Rashleigh was organizing a small fleet of John Deere tractors to prepare the fields where he will be planting barley to supply a brewery in Victoria, just 18 kilometres away.

The Rashleigh family has been farming on Vancouver Island for more than a century, but Mr. Rashleigh sold the main family property years ago, and Saanichton Farms is now a little more than two hectares. The small farm is a keystone for agriculture in the community: With all the tractors, grain silos and milling equipment onsite, Mr. Rashleigh is caretaker for about 90 properties whose farmers have retired or sold out.

“The first moments of tillage of 2023,” he pronounced with satisfaction as he watched his crew – most of them over the age of 75 – plough tidy lines in the soil. There isn’t a lot of money in farming, he said, “but I get to live my dream.”

He recalls his father railing against the Barrett government for creating the ALR. Today, Mr. Rashleigh sees the need for land protection. But his fellow farmers are disappearing and the future is uncertain. “The ALR saved the farmland. But it didn’t save the farmer.”

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