NDP Agriculture Critic Lana Popham Visits Qualicum Beach

The Qualicum Beach Rotary House was full last Saturday (February 4th, 2012), as folks from across the region gathered to hear NDP Agriculture critic Lana Popham. Popham was elected as an MLA for Saanich South in 2009. Raised on Quadra Island and educated at UBC, she currently resides in Saanich. She and her husband started the first certified-organic vineyard on Vancouver Island (though it doesn’t sound like it is still an active vineyard). Her visit coincided with our local Seedy Saturday, though it was not an official addition to the program. Also present was Barry Avis (future NDP MLA candidate for Parksville-Qualicum), farmer Kris Chand (Blue Heron Farm & Qualicum Beach Farmer’s Market), and farmer Joanne Sales (Blueberry Fields Farm).

Popham’s introduction produced some good light-hearted laughs, but I found that it had some important (albeit subtle) substance: farming is more than a business; it is a culture.

“There’s magic in a vineyard, and you get caught up in it the romance of it. And, you know, it’s like a love-hate relationship: the hate grows, and the love eventually dies, and you wonder what the hell you were doing. But, I can tell you that, at the beginning when we planted our vineyard, I planted it with my father-in-law who had just retired from being a lawyer in Victoria, and I came into the family and he said, “I have been waiting for a farmer my entire life. Let’s plant a vineyard!” and so I thought, ‘that sounds great to me’. And so, we were able to plant a vineyard out on the Saanich Peninsula on a 16-acre property. I also established a vegetable growing business at the same time, and the varieties that we choose were cool climate grapes. We got our winery started, and unfortunately my father-in-law passed away before our winery sold its first bottle of wine, which was too bad, but we laugh a lot because, you know, we’re kind of clinging to this two-acres of grapes because it has sentimental value because my father-in-law helped plant it, but the joke of the family is that, you know, he would have pulled them out years ago.”

From my own experience of family and farming, I know exactly what she means. This kind of sentimentality is very alive in my own family. I’m not sure how we can keep the romantic side of farming while actually making a living at it. (I’ll blog about this later this week).

The topic of culture came up a number of times during the afternoon. I think that guest Kris Chand articulated the cultural challenges around farming well: our culture does not value farming, we don’t value it as an occupation, and we don’t teach it in our schools. Changing culture is going to take a long time, but Popham rightly points out that we currently have a window of opportunity to effect this change. “This window of opportunity that we have right now is really based on consumer interest in our food, and we have to engage that because there are 4 million people in BC that eat three times a day, so if we can’t create a stable domestic market with those numbers, we’re doing something wrong. And it’s not the government’s job to make that work; it’s the government’s job to have policies that allow farmers to make that work and consumers to connect with that.”

She identified these policy/roadblocks to agricultural development in BC:

  • BC’s meat regulation legislation
  • Inter-provincial wine trade restrictions/regulations
  • Regulations around farmer’s markets
  • Land being removed from the ALR for development
  • Funding cuts to provincial extension officers
  • Elimination of the provincial Standing Committee on Agriculture
  • Cessation of the “Buy BC” program
  • Lack of infrastructure to process food and/or create value-added products

She posed these solutions, some of which are NDP policy:

  • Public institutions (health institutions) need to buy a minimum of 30% of locally sourced/produced foods
  • No further exclusions of land from the ALR (though privately, afterwards, she said that farm land that never should have been put into the ALR could be excluded, so an exclusion process would still need to exist).
  • Track genetically modified seed that comes into the province
  • Restart the Buy BC program
  • Carbon tax exemptions for farmers (especially greenhouse growers)
  • Allow more use of mobile abattoirs

She kept referring back to her plan, but the plan – part of the NDP platform – isn’t publically available. I imagine it won’t be available until we get closer to election time which, while politically strategic, doesn’t really help get the public educated or engaging in conversation in a timely manner. If the plan is ready, let us see it!

I know first-hand that her criticism of the meat regulation policy is very legitimate, but she did not articulate a solution, aside from bringing up mobile abattoirs (which already exist). She did not say that the NDP would eliminate or re-write the policy. If the policy is eliminated, what do we do for the abattoirs that have invested in facility upgrades? Should we do something for them? Interestingly, she brings up this very problem as a reason for the current government not making changes: how do they explain to all the abattoirs that did the expensive upgrades that they screwed up their legislation?

NDP policy on the ALR appears to be quite clear: viable farm land should never be excluded from the ALR. I’m not thrilled with this policy. I don’t want to subdivide or over develop my farm, but what options do we to raise capital so that we can build infrastructure so that we can actually farm? If ALR is frozen, property values will likely go down, thereby helping people that want to get started in farming. Unfortunately, it that doesn’t help people that already OWN farm land. In fact, we’d be worse off. I know there is a need for the ALR, and I agree that it isn’t working the way it should right now, but there’s got to be a solution for people that own ALR, want to farm it, but can’t afford to. There also needs to be a reasonable solution for farm-property owners to get a fair price for their investment (their land) when they’re ready to sell or retire. Is there benefit to allowing development or subdivision on ALR if the funds raised are to go directly into agricultural investment? If a farmer has 20 acres and wants to subdivide 5 acres so they’ll have capital to start farming the other 15? Popham’s answer is “no”.

During the question period, I was blown away by a call from the audience for the provincial government to step in and deal with municipalities to remove anti-farming land-use policies. WHAT!? It is SO MUCH easier is it to effect change at the local level. Why would we ever want to give away local autonomy to the provincial government? If you want zoning and by-law changes, work with your municipalities to change them. These policies are in place for good reason: people live in cities because they don’t want to listen to farm animals and smell manure. Allowing someone to keep six chickens or to have a family kitchen garden in their backyard doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, but city residents have legitimate reason to object to intensive farming with the intention of producing products for sale. That’s why they live in the city and not out here in Area F. Decisions about zoning and by-laws must be kept under the control of local government. We need more grass-roots government, not bigger, distant government. I was relieved to hear Popham say that “As far as local planning goes, there’s only so much that we can do at the provincial level.”

Despite these criticisms, my impression of Popham was very favorable. She appears to be intelligent, confident, professional and well-spoken (as can be seen in the video archives of question period from last fall), but she is also approachable and personable. What’s more is that she seems fairly believable: she comes across as genuine. I’m not sucked into her philosophy, but I’m also not completely disengaged by politi-speak. I think she did a good job of answering questions. We didn’t always get the plain, simple, clear answer that people want to hear, but she did better than others I’ve heard, and she clearly has a lot of ideas that all sound great. Interestingly, though, no one asked the golden questions: how much is all of this going to cost and how are we going to pay for it?

Oh, and kudos to Qualicum Beach Mayor Tunis Westbroek and SD 69 Trustee & Vice-Chair Barry Kurland for attending: it’s always good to see our local elected officials out and about.

Disclaimer: I am not a member or adherent to any provincial or federal political party. I have never financially supported a political party. My family and I own property that is part of the Agricultural Land Reserve. We are actively farming on a small scale. I am a member of and vendor at the Errington Farmer’s Market. All photos are my own work, and all opinions expressed in this article are my own. I did not receive any financial compensation to write this article.