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VIEW: Blink and you'll miss consultations on BC farmland changes

With changes to the Agricultural Land Commission Act, the B.C. government has grabbed the tiger by the tail and is not backing down. Whether you're a farmer or not the changes will impact you, but does the government really want to hear your concerns?

Consultations for the new legislation known as Bill 24 have begun, and if you blink you'll probably miss them. In-person consultations are invite only, so if you're not a member of the few groups selected by the ministry you won't get past the door. You can add your voice to the online discussions, but since they're only open for a month during the height of the harvest season, many won't hear about it until it is too late.

Some background for those that are not knee-deep in the farming industry. The Agricultural Land Commission (ALC), which is supposed to be an independent government tribunal, oversees the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) with the purpose of defending and encouraging its use for agricultural purposes. Approximately five per cent of B.C.'s land base is included in the ALR, with roughly half of that in the northern region of the province.

The Agricultural Land Commission Act is the legislation that encompasses and guides the operations of both the ALR and the ALC. Bill 24 entails proposed amendments to that act, including dividing the province into two zones and creating six regional panels (three in each zone) to oversee land use.

But the ALR was created because it became abundantly clear that regional authorities could not be relied upon to protect farmland from developers. In fact, the ALR has been called the most successful agricultural land preservation system in North America.

Some experts fear that with Bill 24 the government has opened the door to oil and gas developers, especially in Zone 2 (northern B.C.) where the ALC will be required by legislation to consider economic values as the second priority above regional and community planning objectives. It makes you wonder if this is the welcome mat for a pipeline.

The B.C. Agriculture Council sent a notice to its members last week with its concerns as to why the government was rushing through the consultation process, especially at a time when many farmers would not be able to effectively voice their concerns.

Does the government really want to hear opinions, or is this process strictly a formality on an undisclosed predetermined agenda?

Katherine Engqvist is a fifth-generation farm kid and freelance photojournalist based in Victoria, B.C. She graduated with honours from Ryerson University's School of Journalism in 2012.

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