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Hay Minister? Give Local Eating a Try

Options abound even in East Kootenay, despite Bill Bennett's laugh line.

By Andrew MacLeod 3 Apr 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative bureau chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

In trying to make the case that 90 per cent of British Columbia's farmland is overprotected, cabinet Minister Bill Bennett took an easy shot at local eaters in his Kootenay East constituency.

"I get a kick out of the 100-mile diet, which is a great idea, except that where I live you'd have to eat hay," he said.

The crack got a laugh from many of the reporters and agriculture industry representatives who gathered last week to hear what the government has in store for the province's 4.7-million hectares in the Agricultural Land Reserve.

But among people working on food sustainability in the East Kootenay, Bennett inspired groans.

The 100-mile diet concept comes from a Tyee series that spun into a book and television show for authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon. For a year, the pair ate food that came from within 100 miles of their Vancouver home. They've said they didn't intend the diet to be prescriptive, but to show what is possible.

"It's a great idea," said Bennett with apparent sarcasm. Bennett is the energy minister, but as the minister responsible for a core review of government services, he took the opportunity to look at the ALR and the Agricultural Land Commission which oversees it. "You've got a market garden in the Kootenays, but it can't feed 80,000 people."

While presenting the government's changes to the ALR last week, Bennett stressed his connections to the land. "In addition to, in my case, 13 years listening to people in ranching and farming industry, I come from a rural area," he said. "I work with ranchers on a weekly if not daily basis and have for 13 years."

'We have more than hay'

The government is planning to split the province into two zones. Protection of the ALR will remain as it is now in the Okanagan, South Coast and Island regions, but the new rules would add economic and social considerations to decisions made about agricultural land in the North, Interior and Kootenay regions, opening them up to possible development.

Bennett argued the changes will give more flexibility to the owners of land in parts of the province where elevation, frost, long distances to market and poor soil limit what can be grown.

While it's true nobody is producing food today on a hugely significant scale within 100 miles of Cranbrook where Bennett lives, the suggestion that there'd be nothing for him but hay when he's famished is surprising and insulting to the many people who do grow food there.

"I was disappointed for sure," said Erna Jensen-Shill, the manager of the Cranbrook Farmers Market. "I was surprised that he wouldn't be aware of the bounty of food that can be grown in this area."

The market's catchment includes Creston, Invermere, Fernie and south to the United States border. Jensen-Shill said those places are "loosely" within 100 kilometres, and all within 100 miles.

"We're very clear in our rules that folks who are selling at our market must be from within that area," she said. "We have more than hay."

A list of market vendors from 2013 includes at least 15 local producers growing things like blueberries, strawberries, Saskatoons, garlic, potatoes, apples, cherries, plums, lamb, pork, beef, eggs and herbs. The Riehl Good Corn farm sells corn from Creston. Sun Power Farm offers peas, potatoes and baby carrots.

At least four producers offered honey and other items made from it. Jensen-Shill sent a "non-exhaustive" list of 72 locally-grown products that included artichokes, asparagus, beans, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, grapes, kohlrabi, lentils, melons, mushrooms, onions, peaches, pears, peppers, pumpkins, soya beans, squash and walnuts.

Bennett should come to the market, open from the end of June to the middle of October, so he can see for himself what's available, she said.

"We would also happily extend the invitation for a wonderful meal prepared with locally-grown ingredients," she said. "We could start with braised baby beets and carrots, locally produced cheese, butterling potatoes and pasture-raised Berkshire pork, sweet corn, a salad of summer greens with fresh herb vinaigrette, and for dessert a cherry pie, accompanied by a lovely wine."

The ingredients would all come from within 100 miles of Cranbrook, she said. "But of course, if Mr. Bennet prefers to eat hay, that of course is his prerogative!"

Minister may have to eat his hat... or some hay

The Kootenay based environmental group Wildsight has been promoting local eating in Cranbrook and Kimberley.

In September they hosted a 100-mile cookout, and last month saw 100 people attend a workshop on growing and selling vegetables. The workshop was held within a block of Bennett's office, said Jessica Windle, the group's food sustainability program manager.

"Bennett might have to eat his hat if he came for dinner at my house and saw the bounty of local food, including meat, dairy, grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables," she said in an email.

"People in the East Kootenay have long been growing and eating their own food, and lately more and more are interested in farming or in buying local," she said.

582px version of '100 Mile' cookout
Wildsight organizers say next time they host a 100-mile cookout, like this one in Cranbook last September, they'll invite Bill Bennett so he can see there's more than hay to eat.

Farmers work hard to improve the soil, extend the growing season and market their produce, said Windle. "That kind of dedication to the land, to health, and to a true local economy should be encouraged by our government, not belittled and brushed off as a trend."

"There's great potential to grow food in and around Cranbrook," said Christian Kimber who sells herbs, lettuce, chard and spinach from his 3 Crows Farm at the Cranbrook Farmers Market. "It's all about putting the effort in."

Kimber does not himself farm ALR land, instead using his own and a neighbour's backyards in town. He acknowledges that the season is short and the soil needs work to help it produce, but that it is completely doable with care and attention.

"It takes a different business model," he said, noting that growing hay and ranching require minimal effort. Following a small-is-beautiful model, it's possible to reduce costs for necessities like machinery and fencing while producing a tremendous variety of things to eat, he said. "You can generate a lot of food on a small amount of area."

Flexible but vague

Kimber did, however, have some sympathy for Bennett's attempt to loosen up restrictions in the ALR. He said he knew the couple Bennett cited in his presentation on the reasons behind the changes. The couple was denied permission to build a house on a rocky section of their ALR land so their daughter could take over their market garden business. Kimber mentioned someone else who wanted to set up a welding shop on ALR land, but wasn't allowed.

"I see the room for flexibility," he said, noting the issue isn't completely black-and-white and that the Kootenays rarely experiences the same kinds of development pressure that exists in the Lower Mainland or Okanagan. "Sometimes [the ALR] is slowing farms down. It reduces innovation."

It is, however, unclear exactly how far that "flexibility" would go. Other examples Bennett cited included a gravel pit that didn't happen because of ALR restrictions. One of the stakeholders invited to the government's announcement of the changes, Faye Street from the Kootenay Livestock Association, said she'd support a prison or a motel on farm land if it supported agriculture on the rest of someone's land.

The rules that would guide regional panels to make decisions on what can happen in the ALR are vague. The bill says the panel is to protect farm land, but also to consider "economic, cultural and social values" as well as "regional and community planning objectives."

If a local community would like to have a go-kart track built on farm land for economic reasons, the panel would have to consider that.

It would also have to take into account "other prescribed considerations," meaning anything the B.C. cabinet later says it should consider.

The second reading of the bill, where each MLA gets a chance to give a speech on why they do or don't support it, is expected to begin as soon as April 7.  [Tyee]

Read more: Food, BC Politics

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