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'We're Being Muzzled' Say Top Farmland Scientists

Nine senior agrologists protest way ALR decisions are made.

By Andrew MacLeod 30 Oct 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Agrologist Holm: 'Grave injustice.'

Some of B.C.'s top farm scientists charge they are being "slapped down" for speaking against agricultural land being paved.

A group of nine senior agrologists are writing to their colleagues to protest how the body that regulates their profession censured a member who urged a mayor and council to use caution when removing land from the Agricultural Land Reserve.

"It's muzzling," said Wendy Holm, a member of the group and a past president of the B.C. Institute of Agrology. "There are agrologists standing up for the public interest with the preservation of the Agricultural Land Reserve and they're being slapped down."

The decision, made last year, has left many agrologists wondering what they can and can't say in public about farmland being converted to housing developments. It comes at a time when there is heavy pressure to remove land from the ALR, especially in the more populated southern regions of the province.

And while some agrologists make a very good living providing the opinions that allow land to be removed from the 35-year-old reserve, others are fighting what they see as the silencing of a colleague. "It can be cast as a dispute between professionals, but it's way beyond that," said Holm.

The agrologists signing the letter are Holm, Ron Bertrand, Richard Bocking, Larry Bomford, Art Bomke, Arthur Hadland, Niels Holbek, Gary Runka and Dave Sands. Three of them are past presidents of the BCIA. Seven have been named Agrologist of the Year. On average they've been BCIA members for 35 years.

"These are the lions of the profession, if you will," said Holm. "We are not prepared to let this go. That's what being a professional is all about."

The disciplining was a "grave injustice," they wrote. "We feel the nature of this injustice has overarching and extremely negative implications for professionalism, community interests and public policy, [so] we are not prepared to step back from this matter until it is resolved."

The seed of an offence

The complaint stems from the disciplining last year of Susan Ames, an agrologist who wrote to Delta Mayor Lois Jackson and the city's council regarding a proposed withdrawal of land from the ALR. In a two-page letter dated July 26, 2007, Ames wrote about the planned redevelopment of the Tsawwassen Golf and Country Club, urging Jackson and the council to use caution making their zoning decision.

At the time, Ames was the president of the BCIA, though she did not identify herself as such. She wrote as a soils specialist and agrologist with 20 years experience, who the Tsawwassen Homeowners Association had asked to look at two soil reports being presented for the area.

"It is reported in both soil reports, that the construction of the current golf course has apparently degraded at least some of the land for agricultural use such that it has been deemed as having little or no suitability for agricultural use," she wrote. "It seems that based on this apparent degradation for agricultural use, there is a request to exclude a part of it for a housing development and to compensate for the loss of golf course land to housing, the plan is to convert more land within the ALR into more golf course land."

Allowing farmland to be turned into golf courses and golf courses to be turned into housing would send a clear message to developers, she said: "That land within the ALR can be excluded for residential development. This would encourage speculation and put further pressure on the ALR."

She suggested the best use of the land would be to continue using it as a golf course since "damage to much of its agricultural potential has apparently already been done, at least to a part of it, according to both reports."

She did not contradict the soil reports her colleagues had submitted, but she did suggest the mayor and council should be careful in how they interpreted what they were told.

A complaint takes root

One of the agrologists working for the developer complained to the BCIA, and the organization's conduct and discipline committee investigated.

The committee does not publicly report on its findings, at least not naming disciplined members, but in a February 2008 BCIA newsletter, both the president who replaced Ames, Keith Duhaime, and the chair of the conduct and discipline committee, Bob Holtby, wrote about what they described as a fall 2007 complaint.

The committee's decision establishes when an agrologist can offer an opinion, Holtby wrote. "In short, an agrologist may not offer an opinion unless he or she has done the work or the work has been completed under his or her direct supervision."

Duhaime wrote that "our first duty is to carry out a critical review of the scientific evidence before offering up an opinion."

"It is all too easy to let passion get ahead of reason," he added. "As a self-regulating profession entrusted with the public interest, we must also be prepared to challenge our fellow professionals when this happens."

The ruling misinterprets how the BCIA's code of ethics was intended, according to a summary of Richard Bocking's remarks to the Institute's 2008 AGM. "Our province and our world are faced with pressing issues, with food, agriculture, and water among the most serious," wrote Bocking, a member of the organization for 44 years. "The public has a right to expect agrologists to offer considered opinions that are based on their education, experience, and knowledge of the issues involved.

"To suggest that an agrologist cannot offer an opinion on the validity of protecting agricultural land, for instance, without actually taking soil samples on a particular plot is ludicrous."

Bitter fruit

While the public loses the chance to hear the thinking of agrologists like Ames, the ruling allows the agrologists who offer reports that help land owners and developers remove land from the ALR to do their work without fear of being publicly contradicted by a colleague.

As it happens, the chair of the conduct and discipline committee himself, Bob Holtby, has provided the opinions that have helped get several parcels of land removed from the ALR.

Holm said, "I think it is fair to say that Bob Holtby... has apparently himself been associated with more than a dozen ALR withdrawal applications in recent years."

Reached by phone, Holtby said the BCIA's bylaws don't allow him to talk about the Ames ruling, or even to confirm whether or not she was disciplined.

Speaking in general, he said when agrologists disagree with a colleague's work, the bylaws say they should first approach the person who did the work to discuss their differences. "Your professional designation does not allow you to say anything you want to say," he said. When someone criticizes, they can affect not just a colleague's reputation, but also some large projects, he added. "The dollars on the table are immense."

'The expertise I bring is farming': Holtby

Holtby can, however, talk more freely about his own work.

"Don't tell me I'm giving anybody a friendly report," he said. "I've been doing this a long time and I've been fairly careful."

He often gets called to look at land that really should be in the ALR, he said. "If there's nothing I can write to help them out, they don't do the project... If I can't write something that's useful to them, I let them buy me a coffee."

He has been involved in bringing land into the reserve in the past, he said, as well as bringing land out. "I won't deny that I have from time to time been involved in exclusions, you know, but my commentary on the exclusions still starts with the soil," he said.

But Holm points out that Holtby is writing those reports despite not being a soil specialist.

His member listing on the BCIA's website says his expertise is in accounting, finance, business management and management land use.

"The expertise I bring is farming," he said. "I don't look at these things from a technical soils perspective. I look at it from the perspective of what you would use the soils for farming."

Most of his work involves looking at the Canada Land Inventory maps to see if they reflect what the land is actually like, he said. "What I'm trying to do is get a sense why the decision for inclusion or exclusion was made." In most cases the maps are accurate, he said, but in some cases they are not.

He does not do soil classification work, he said, but added that it is a factor in making recommendations. "You look at the soils, you look at the land, and then you stand back and look in a more holistic view and say, 'What would I do with this?'"

He added, "In a lot of these cases you come into a subjective judgment. That judgment, that's what I exercise."

'Defending the turf' of some who back developers?

But if decisions have such a strong subjective side, shouldn't a council like Delta's also have the opportunity to consider an opinion like Ames', offered as another way of looking at the same set of undisputed facts?

Again without talking about the specific case, Holtby allowed the bylaws have some problems, but said, "If you're going to comment on a subject property, in my view, you should go look at the property."

Holm, however, said it's telling that the complaint about Ames was made by an agrologist working for the developer. "It's defending the turf of a handful of agrologists who make a sizeable chunk of their income getting land out of the ALR," she said in an e-mail. "I think the ruling protects this lucrative turf by stopping agrologists from stepping forward in the public interest by intimidation... and by trying to establish this as a new precedent."*

That precedent comes at a time when unprecedented amounts of land are coming out of the ALR. Since 2003, when the province created six regional decision making bodies to replace one province-wide commission, there's been a net loss of 10,000 acres from the ALR in the four regions with the most development pressure: the Island, South Coast, Okanagan and Kootenay, according to Holm's analysis.

During the same period, about 7,200 acres have gone into the ALR, but it has been in the Interior and North regions, areas where the landscape and climate are not nearly as good for farming. The pattern suggests there is much more at play than just fine-tuning the ALR to make sure the land in it has good soil for farming, she said.

"You can't take land out of the reserve for economic reasons," she said. Protecting farmland is important for many reasons, she added. "We're talking about food security, food safety and food miles."

Agrologists need to be free to speak their minds, she said, and defend the ALR.

*The article above was changed on Thursday, Oct. 30, to reflect Holms's intent. -- Tyee Editor.

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