Joan and Cecil Mercer have lived on their farm in Errington since 1985, and don’t ever plan to leave.
The ALC, first established in 1973 by the NDP under Dave Barrett, is an independent tribunal dedicated to preserving and protecting farmland in B.C. It regulates the 47,000 square kilometers of the Agriculture Land Reserve — public and private land where agriculture is deemed a priority.
The ALC regulates the land through legislation and by reviewing land use applications from ALR owners.
Bill 52 limits residential structures on ALR farmland in an attempt to preserve and protect the land, as well as keep it from going up in price. ALR landowners can put in applications for secondary dwellings to get approval from the ALC, previously a process handled by local government, for $1,500.
The bill passed in October 2018, but is still being protested by some ALR landowners. In late October, approximately 100 farmers rallied in Victoria at the B.C. legislature against Bill 52, as well as Bill 15 — another controversial bill that affects ALR landowner’s ability to petition the ALC for removal of land. A Facebook page called ‘Changes to Bill 52’ has almost 3,500 members as of December 2019.
Joan and Cecil’s operation at Tiger Lily Farm includes a petting zoo, trail rides, naturally raised meat and more. Their plan has always been to retire on the property and have their children take it over. For them, that would mean building a small house for themselves, which would free up their home for their daughter and her children to live in. Ideally, they’d like other family members to be able to live on the property in small dwellings who would help with the farm as well.
“(Bill 52) really squashes the ability of a farmer to succeed the farm down to the next and next generation,” said Joan. “Stuff doesn’t happen between nine and five, it happens usually in the middle of the night and if it’s happening in the middle of the night, it’s something that needs all hands on deck.”
Janet Thony, president of the Coombs Farmers’ Institute, said Bill 52 is blanket legislation that might work to combat mega-mansions on the mainland, but only negatively impacts farmers with ALR land on Vancouver Island.
“Urban people see it as a benefit, where rural people feel like its hindering,” said Thony.
Both Thony and the Mercers are frustrated about the number of regulations the ALC has put forward — not just the effects of Bill 52. They both point to Rusted Rake Farm, a Nanoose Bay eatery that closed in September of 2019, due to an application rejected by the ALC, as an example of how regulations are holding back farmers.
In the Rusted Rake’s case, they had to shut down their on-site farm-to-table eatery after their brewery permit was denied. The ALC requires farm-to-table operations to have a brewery or winery, but the farm’s brewery permit and their application for non-farm use in ALR land were both denied, forcing them to close down their eatery. Rusted Rake’s operations include barley, wheat, beef, vegetable and fruit production.
The Mercers say restrictions on diversifying, like in Rusted Rake’s case, and the limitations on second dwellings are too much regulation put on farmers from the ALC.
Lana Popham, Minister of Agriculture, doesn’t agree.
Specifically, Popham said Bill 52 isn’t targeting rural people who want to take over family farms, it’s trying to curtail serious problems — the rising price of farmland and it not being used properly. Popham said people like the Mercers who are actually farming aren’t the problem.
According to statistics from the Ministry of Agriculture, 73 per cent of non-adhering residential applications have been approved since Bill 52 came into force.
“There’s a lot of misinformation that is floating around and it’s easy to look at that information and then feel like things are changing and it’s easy to get upset,” said Popham. “Once we’ve talked to many people, we find that people are relieved at the approach that we’re taking.”
The Mercers emphasize that they feel the application process through the ALC doesn’t take into account what farming actually looks like. They say although houses take up farmland, they’re vital structures that keep the farm going.
“Seriously, farmers don’t generally have yards. We have a fenced-in area around the house, there’s usually a pony or a sheep or something,” said Joan. “We don’t mow the lawn, somebody just eats it. It’s not well-kept by any means.”
“Yes, it would take up space. But then everything you do takes up space, if you put a hay barn it takes up space, but it’s necessary,” said Cecil. “The house is necessary, you can’t have a farm without people. So it is necessary.”
However, the Mercers said the 73 per cent approval rate makes them a bit more optimistic. They said they think people might be afraid of applying due to the fear of getting rejected after paying the $1,500 fee. In addition, they said they don’t feel the ALC gives them these statistics and the relevant context — that’s a big part of where the concern comes from.
“My take from that is that there needs to be more information put out there,” Joan said. “It gives me hope.”
“What we hear, is that they’re not approving almost anything,” said Cecil.
Jennifer Dyson, chair of the ALC, echoed Popham and said Bill 52 isn’t about stopping people like Joan and Cecil from aging in place — that those sort of applications are encouraged.
“I think there is a lot of misconception about actually what changed,” she said. “We need to really change the conversation to talk about what can we do to support agriculture, and it’s not just building more homes, it should be about finding ways to encourage whats happening — small, medium or large”
Dyson said there is a reason for these regulations. She said the relationship between adding more residences and property value increase is a problem — one the ALC is trying to curtail with Bill 52.
“When we build another house or put a mobile home on the ALR, we’re adding another anywhere, if it’s just a trailer or a mobile home, probably around $300,000 to $500,000 and that’s got nothing to do with agriculture or the ALR,” she said. “It’s just simply a fact that the more we build that has nothing to do with agriculture, the more the cost of land goes up.”
Popham said the ALC is open to some changes, though, and pointed to the price of an application as something they might re-consider.
“In fact, the previous government created that fee of $1,500,” she said. “We’re seriously considering lowering that fee.”
She said farmers can expect some changes as soon as January, although she didn’t specify what those would be.
“I think some of the changes you’re going to hear us propose in January will prove that we’ve listened,” said Popham.
For Cecil and Joan, that was welcomed news.
“I think it would change it for a lot of people because that’s an awful lot just to make an application,” said Cecil about the application fee.
But, for now, Cecil and Joan say they’ll keep fighting ALC regulations, and the effects they feel they have on second dwellings and the ability to diversify until there is change. The Mercers, along with thousands of other farmers, remain concerned.
“We will keep protesting them, we will live with them if we have to. I mean we don’t have a choice at this point. But we will keep protesting and fighting it as much as we can,” said Cecil. “Hopefully we can get more people involved in it and in the very worst-case scenario we hope with the next government they will rescind at least some of them.”