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Cucumbers or Cannabis? The Battle Over Pot Crops on BC’s Farmland

Communities ‘under attack’ by cannabis corps, says Delta mayor. But producers say there’s land enough for all.

By Braela Kwan 15 Jul 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Braela Kwan is a graduate student at the UBC School of Journalism who writes about the environment, sustainability and cannabis. She is completing a practicum at the Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @br_aelak.

Delta’s long history of farming for food is under siege from cannabis growers, says the city’s mayor.

The small city south of Richmond is home to an agricultural industry that generated over $220 million in farm revenue in 2015.

But about four years ago, cannabis production started replacing tomato and pepper crops in many of Delta’s greenhouses.

Today, about 26 per cent of greenhouse space in Delta on land protected by the Agricultural Land Reserve is used for growing pot, not food.

“We are under attack by the pot industry for greenhouses,” said Delta Mayor George Harvie.

His fears were worsened in May when the Agricultural Land Commission loosened the rules for growing cannabis on ALR land.

Some municipal politicians want tougher Agricultural Land Reserve regulations to ensure the land is used for food production.

But cannabis growers, especially the small micro-cultivators, say cannabis production can assist traditional farmers struggling with high costs and cheap food imports.

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Delta Mayor George Harvie says his city is ‘under attack’ by the cannabis industry. Photo submitted.

Food security fears

The Agricultural Land Commission’s May 8 bulletin said that changes in provincial legislation meant that cannabis cultivation is now considered “farm use.”

Producers don’t need permission from the commission, and local governments have limited ability to block cannabis growers. 

“[The commission is] trying to ensure that cannabis could be grown in the ALR but give the local governments the widest latitudes to prohibit it if they felt they didn’t want a certain form of growing,” said Martin Collins, director of policy and planning for the Agricultural Land Commission. “It’s a bit of a balancing act.”

But critics say the change limits municipalities’ ability to protect farmland used for food production. They can’t block producers who grow outdoors or in greenhouses with dirt floors. And they can’t block producers who buy existing greenhouses and convert them from vegetables to cannabis.

Harvie said the change undermines food production in favour of cannabis.

“What it’s done is taken away proper food production. It’s replaced it [with] recreational and medical marijuana use,” Harvie said. “I just don’t agree with that at all.”

Harvie’s opposition is echoed by other municipalities including Pitt Meadows, Richmond and Surrey.

Harold Steves, a long-time Richmond councillor and one of the architects of the Agricultural Land Reserve as part of the NDP Dave Barrett government, said that B.C. farmers produced 86 per cent of vegetables consumed by the province when the farmland reserve was established in 1973.

Today, he said, B.C. farmers are producing 45 per cent of vegetables consumed in the province.

The ALR protects less than five per cent of B.C.’s total land base, he said.

Fertile concerns

Steves and Harvie want cannabis production to be relocated to regions where the soil quality is lower. High-quality farmland should be preserved for soil-based vegetable agriculture, Steves said.

The Agricultural Land Commission classifies B.C.’s protected farmlands based on their productive potential.

Under the classification system, class one farmlands have the best climate and soil quality potential for growing crops. Class seven lands have the poorest quality soil.

Steves said the highest quality lands should be reserved for food production. “It’s the really good soils we need to preserve for soil-based agriculture.”

In Delta, protected farmland comprises 52 per cent of the city’s land area, and much of it is high quality with rankings between classes one and three.

Harvie said his city’s rich soil quality means cannabis production should be moved out of Delta.

“I have no problems with [cannabis production] in poor soils. It can be a benefit to the economy at the local cities that have these poor soils that aren’t being used,” he said. “But we don’t have any poor soils in Delta; that’s the uniqueness of our city.”

Harvie said cannabis production in Delta started in industrial areas. The move to farmland was a way to cut costs, he said.

“It costs a lot more to establish a recreational marijuana operation in an industrial area than it does in the ALR land,” said Harvie. “I find it shameful that they’re allowed to do that.”

Small-scale cannabis producers point to the shrinking availability of industrial land and argue that under-used farmland is available.

“I do believe that [a lot] of ALR land in B.C. is actually not being farmed,” said James Walsh, president of the BC Micro License Association, an organization dedicated to helping B.C.’s craft farmers transition to a legal, regulated industry.

A 2018 report from Kwantlen Polytechnic University found that half of B.C.’s farmland is unused. Walsh believes this unused land base could host small-scale cannabis farming.

But Kent Mullinix, co-author of the report and director of the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, said B.C.’s unused farmland is mostly used for housing. Cannabis operations are competing for a much smaller agricultural land base.

Mullinix is against using farmland — a “precious, non-renewable resource” — to “pursue this cannabis cash cow.”

Half of B.C.’s food supply is imported from outside the province, raising concerns about provincial food security, self-reliance for food production and climate change, according to a 2011 report from the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.

“Does it make sense to use a precious, non-renewable resource that all of humanity is dependent on so that a few companies can make billions of dollars? No, it does not,” said Mullinix.

Better farming through pot

Advocates for cannabis farmers say municipal officials confuse large corporate cannabis growers with the small-scale producers they represent. Small-scale growers present both an economic opportunity and a benefit for B.C.’s beleaguered farming industry, they say.

“Municipal staff mostly have been basically left out of legislation and not given the opportunity to learn about the difference between a standard cultivator and a micro cultivator,” said Susan Chapelle, a former Squamish city councillor and director of government relations and affairs at Pasha Brands, a network of B.C.’s craft cannabis producers.

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Susan Chapelle, who works on behalf of BC’s craft cannabis products, points out that other non-food crops are grown on agricultural farmland, such as hops for beer. Photo submitted.

Jaclynn Pehota, founder of Althing Consulting, a consulting company for cannabis producers, offers a similar perspective.

“I completely understand the province’s concern about food security. But I don’t think that small-scale cannabis cultivation is a threat in any meaningful way,” she said.

Municipalities like Delta have seen large cannabis corporations buy greenhouses and convert them to cannabis production and fear a loss of food production.

Cannabis giant Canopy Growth, the world’s largest publicly traded cannabis company, has 39 acres of greenhouse space in Delta. Emerald Health Therapeutics, another huge cannabis player in Canada, has two greenhouse spaces in Delta totalling 51 acres.

Pehota said the big corporate projects have damaged relationships with municipalities.

“Unfortunately, the larger-scale projects really did come first,” she said. “They have done a big harm in terms of those relationships with municipalities... That’s where the conflict is really coming from.”

Pehota sees potential for small-scale cannabis production in B.C.’s farmland to help support traditional agriculture and local farmers.

“At a micro-scale, cannabis is a huge opportunity to support traditional agriculture. That’s just a conversation we need to have,” she said.

Chapelle said the argument against farming cannabis on prime agricultural farmland is “completely biased” because other non-food crops are grown on agricultural farmland.

“We can grow grapes on prime agricultural soil which produce wine, which is only for the enjoyment of alcohol. We allow hops to grow on ALR land, which sole production is for beer,” she said.

Stigma is blocking cannabis-driven business opportunities, she said.

Farmers supporting farmers

Chapelle has travelled to various municipalities across B.C. to discuss micro-cannabis cultivation on protected farmland with public officials. She said she’s seeing the benefits of cannabis producers and traditional farmers working together.

Many farmers in the Lower Mainland already combine the two, she said. “They’ve already been using extra greenhouse space to grow cannabis. They’ve already been supplementing their income.”

Allowing small-scale cannabis crops on ALR land will help farmers who “are having a rough time right now with globalized food production,” she said.

The challenges of globalized food production are already visible in B.C. Local raspberry farmers are scaling down their operations because of high costs and competition from cheap raspberry imports from other countries.

Cannabis cultivation could help struggling rural towns diversify their economies, said Chapelle, noting B.C.’s forestry towns are facing mill closures and the loss of hundreds of jobs.

“We need another economy. Cannabis can be that economy. Cannabis can be the economy that helps rural regions in British Columbia transition from an industrial economy to a farming economy,” Chapelle said.

Opportunities for small-scale cannabis cultivation are available, but Chapelle said the stigma against cannabis producers is a barrier.

“The only thing we need is the land to grow it on. To ban cannabis in municipalities and not give these farmers the opportunity to enter the market that already exists is very short sighted.”  [Tyee]

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