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The Globe and Mail

‘Land-banking’ leaves Lower Mainland’s fertile farms fallow

The Richmond Country Farms corn field along Steveston Highway in Richmond, B.C., is shown July 16, 2013.

RAFAL GERSZAK/The Globe and Mail

Local agriculture is big these days, spurred by the success of the 100 Mile Diet, the ongoing blueberry bonanza and the rising demand for organic produce. Farmers' markets have never been more popular.

Yet a perplexing problem confounds agricultural advocates on the Lower Mainland, home of some of Canada's richest farmland. Many owners of this fertile land aren't farming it at all.

"Local farmers are telling us that a lot of them, who had been leasing out their land, are now just letting it go fallow," said George Harvie, chief administrative officer of the rural municipality of Delta. "Most of the properties I've investigated are foreign owned. It seems that this is a form of land-banking. They just don't seem to care. That really bothers us."

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The situation has prompted municipal officials to step up efforts to find a way to bring such land back into production through higher tax rates. "It's all about money," Mr. Harvie said. "If they end up paying more in taxes than they are paying now, they may then see the need for leasing these farms to local farmers in the community."

He said land is often bought up by owners from the United States, who are then surprised to find they can't develop their acreage because of its inclusion in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

Added long-time Delta Mayor Lois Jackson: "There's too much farmland that is not being farmed, because it's not a farmer who owns it. If they're not farming, they should have to lease out their land or pay a premium for that. We need that land protected for farming."

A recent survey by Metro Vancouver found that 28 per cent of land deemed suitable for farming in the region is not being used for agriculture.

"This is both damaging to the land and taking much-needed income and productive acreage away from our local farmers," Mr. Harvie said. He added that Delta is supporting a resolution to the upcoming Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention calling on the B.C. Assessment Authority to look into reclassifying non-compliant farmland.

"We don't want to just sit around and do nothing," he said. "We want to assist our farmers."

Landowners who don't farm aren't the only problem. There are also concerns over owners who also run other businesses on their farms, while continuing to pay the relatively low agricultural tax rate.

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"If that's the case, we would like 50 per cent of their farm to be taxed as a business," said John Van Laerhoven, mayor of the District of Kent. "Otherwise, it's not fair to their business competitors."

Veteran Richmond Councillor Harold Steves, chair of Metro Vancouver's agriculture committee and a farmer himself, said it is vital that farm owners who have let their land lapse be pressured to restore production.

"We've got a tremendous number of young people who want to go into farming," Mr. Steves said. "They are looking for land, but they can't find it."

At the same time, climate scientists have predicted that global warming is likely to be a boon for Lower Mainland agriculture, he said. "With longer, better summers, we're going to have a good climate for growing crops. Therefore, it's more important to save farmland than ever before."

There are signs the threat of higher taxes may already be paying off.

Mr. Steves referred to a 100-acre farm in Steveston that hadn't been farmed for 20 years. "Then we started suggesting that farmland held for speculation should be assessed for higher taxes. Suddenly, the owners have leased it out, and it's being farmed. We aren't quite sure why, but it could be they finally realized the jig was up."

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An e-mailed statement from the Ministry of Agriculture pointed out that fallow farmland does not qualify for the low agricultural tax rate. However, critics claim the amount of production required to qualify for the rate is low, and scrutiny is lax.

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