Councillor is down on the farm

A plan to encourage agriculture in the city of Campbell River won’t get one thin dime from taxpayers if Coun. Ziggy Stewart has his way

A plan to encourage agriculture in the city of Campbell River won’t get one thin dime from taxpayers if Coun. Ziggy Stewart has his way.

“It’s a non-starter,” Stewart said.

Coun. Stewart gave an impassioned and, at times, emotional commentary on a draft agricultural plan that was presented to council by the Agriculture Plan Steering Committee.

Stewart called on his own family history in farming and painted a bleak picture of the economics of farming as a sustainable industry and, consequently, the waste of money any taxpayer support of it would be.

“It is a challenge – a challenge – to have a sustainable lifestyle working from farming,” Stewart said.

Committee chair Morgan Ostler appeared before council Tuesday to outline the plan and answer questions from councillors.

“In the mid-Island, we historically have thought of ourselves as a resource-based community focused on logging, fishing and mining,” Ostler told council. “We have not seen ourselves as having a future in agricultural enterprise. However, the times are changing. Vancouver Island is changing. With the downturn in resource-based economy, many communities on the Island are successfully diversifying by developing their agriculture sector.”

Vancouver Island once produced more than half of the region’s food requirements. In the past 60 years, this number has dropped to 10 per cent, Ostler said. In Campbell River, food production is less than one per cent.

“That’s a shocking figure,” Ostler said. “If huge semi-trailers didn’t arrive here on a daily basis loaded with food supplies, we would not be able to sustain ourselves.”

Ostler said that if Vancouver Island were cut off from the mainland for some reason, there is only enough food supply to last three days.

When Ostler talks about agricultural opportunities to Campbell River residents, the most consistent response is “but we have no arable land.”

The draft plan Ostler and her committee presented to council was written up by consultants and shows that there are hundreds of acres of high quality soil, some of it owned by timber companies, some by the city and other lands privately held.

“The soil specialist who surveyed the land tells us that Campbell River has large areas equivalent in soil value to Abbotsford and Langley,” Ostler said.

One-third of the city is zoned as Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) that equates to approximately 12,000 acres (5,000 hectares) of potential farmland.

“‘But these lands are mostly covered in trees,’ could be the rebuttal,” Ostler said. “Well, back in 1920 when Tom Hudson arrived here by boat, the 120 acres of land he chose had already been lightly logged. He cleared the rest by hand and with horse. Today, Hudson’s Farm is an outstanding example of the agricultural potential of our district’s farmland.”

Ostler said it has been clearly established that Campbell River has significant agricultural land within its borders.

But Coun. Stewart took issue with the idea of taxpayers’ money being put into this agricultural plan. Particularly because he believes it would be throwing good money after bad. Farming is a difficult industry in which to make money.

Stewart disagreed with a lot of the conclusions in the draft plan.

“There are inconsistencies and assumptions” in the report that are “made without what appears to be any farming knowledge,” Stewart said. “What is being sold in this report sometimes is not very factual.”

Stewart referred to his own family history of farming in Black Creek and Duncan as well as his own education in horticulture and a career in landscaping. Stewart said the expense of buying land and converting it to farming plus the cost of labour and the lack of good workers is a major obstacle. Farming doesn’t pay very well – neither in return on investment to the farmer nor in the level of wages paid to workers.

Stewart seemed to take from the report that it was going to require taxpayer subsidies to make it work, he even at one point took issue with the idea that there was going to be free land and free labour available for farming.

But Ostler said nowhere in the report does it talk about giving free land or money to anybody to get into farming. The intent of the plan is to encourage the community to pursue agricultural opportunities in the broadest sense – from hobby farms to commercial greenhouses.

“I don’t want to leave the impression with the public that we want to provide free land and free labour,” Ostler said to Stewart. “That’s never the intention.”