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Donna Passmore, Campaign Director of the Farmland Defence League of BC, is photographed at an illegal storage and dumping area on a piece of ALR land in the Cloverdale neighbourhood of Surrey, B.C., Wednesday, November 20, 2013.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's Agricultural Land Reserve is being eroded by farmers and ranchers who illegally use their property to support non-agrarian businesses, say critics in a debate over the future of the province's farmland.

And Richard Bullock, chair of the Agricultural Land Commission, agrees.

"I guess it's reality," he said when asked about the allegation that hundreds of farmers are using their property for non-farm businesses such as parking lots, or to provide services to the oil and gas industry. "People are … trying to find ways to feed their families as well as farm."

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Mr. Bullock, whose independent Crown agency is under scrutiny in the provincial government's core review, said enforcing land-use regulations is important to the ALC, but "we've only got so many resources and you can only do so many things." He said the ALC is asking local governments to help protect the 4.7 million hectares in the ALR and is doing a review of boundaries to get a more accurate picture of the state of the reserve.

Paul Gevatkoff, chair of Citizens for Agricultural Reform, said in an interview from Dawson Creek that in northeast B.C. it's common for ranchers and farmers to use their land for non-agricultural operations. He thinks the ALC should get out of their way so they can do so legally.

"The people conducting non-farm-related business on their farmland do it to supplement their income … they struggle to stay afloat," he said. "They'll maybe have a couple of water trucks or a couple welding trucks to work in the winter.… Well, all of those guys are illegal, they are basically non-compliant with the [ALR] legislation and there are hundreds of them up here."

Mr. Bullock said a farmer who runs a water truck or does a bit of welding is of no concern to the ALC, but those who developed larger "commercial operations" are.

Mr. Gevatkoff's organization has been lobbying the government to bring in a separate set of rules for managing the ALR in the north, where he argues there is an abundance of farmland. He said allowing farmers and ranchers to diversify will help keep farms going. "In a way it promotes agriculture because these guys are able to survive on the farm because they are getting work to supplement their farm," he said.

But a review by The Globe and Mail shows the majority of land withdrawal applications to the ALR get approved. Of 169 recent applications, 123 were approved by the ALC and 46 were rejected. Most of the rejections, 24, were for applications to subdivide land.

In the northern region 38 applications resulted in 34 approvals, with only four rejections, one of which was for a rodeo ground.

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In southeast B.C., Donna Passmore, campaign director of the Farmland Defence League, said the province needs to do more to protect farmland, not less. The White Rock resident said the 4.7-million hectares in the ALR is "a myth" because there has been no comprehensive study of how the land is being used – and much of the land that is supposedly being protected is being degraded by non-farm uses.

"There's a farm near here where there's all these dilapidated, rusting transport trucks parked … somebody bought the land. Farmland is cheap. Rather than farm, they put up a hedge to hide behind," she said. "There's a lot of that going on."

Asked about Mr. Gevatkoff's comment that a farmer should be allowed to run a small business to make ends meet, Ms. Passmore was adamant. "Too bad. I feel for them, but we don't have enough of that land," she said.

Ms. Passmore was critical of the ALC for approving the legal withdrawal of about 500 hectares of farmland annually, saying B.C. should be adding land to the reserve. Others have criticized the ALC for impeding development by not removing enough land.

Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm, who according to a leaked cabinet document has proposed stripping the ALC of its powers, was criticized by the ALC for lobbying in support of the rodeo. The rodeo is now under investigation because the development proceeded despite getting rejected.

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