The auditorium at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Langley was packed with people Monday night, a crowd overwhelmingly in favour of a proposal to include a parcel of South Surrey farmland in the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
Several MPs, MLAs and municipal councillors from the affected area and surrounding communities were among those in support in the 250-plus crowd. Also there to speak in favour, were members of the Heppell family, which leases and farms part of the land in question, as well as industry stakeholders, other farmers and area residents.
Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) chair Jennifer Dyson cautioned everyone to respect the process before an estimated 50 to 60 people took to the microphone to speak.
The ALC’s proposal is to include 123.6 ha (~305 acres) of land in South Surrey in the ALR – including a 220-acre parcel of land located at 192 Street and 36 Avenue – that Tyler Heppell’s family has leased from the federal government and farmed for half a century.
Speakers noted how unique the land is – sandier and less mucky than other areas, allowing the Heppells and Sahotas, who also farm some of the land – to farm up to 10 months out of the year, and how important it is to food supply and security.
The land produces some of the country’s earliest crops – including potatoes, cabbages, carrots, parsnips and squash – and many noted how a 2021 flood in Abbotsford’s Sumas Prairie affected local food production and supply.
‘We are so fortunate to have this land right here in Surrey,” Surrey Coun. Linda Annis said when it was her turn to speak, noting that Surrey council unanimously passed a motion in support of including the land in the ALR.
‘We want to make sure our food supply is secure,” she said.
The Heppell farm produces 30 to 50 million servings of vegetables each year and isn’t only important to B.C. but to Western Canada and all of Canada, she said.
When Tyler Heppell spoke – his grandpa Ron among those gathered – he told the crowd about how he left the family farm at 18.
He knew firsthand how hard it was, he said, having seen his father lose all of his crops in 2010 and “my grandfather still labouring in his 70s.”
He graduated from university and worked in sales, but said he “felt a lack of purpose.”
“At age 28 I returned to the family farm with a promise to my Dad that I’d stay one year. Now, 11 months later, I’ve found my purpose,” Heppell said.
A fifth-generation farmer, he noted the average age of a Canadian farmer is 57 and younger people aren’t embracing it as much as they used to, having seen the struggles their parents have undergone.
“I want to tell the next generation of farmers – it’s worth it,” he said, noting that protecting farmland is important in providing local food security.
“Our actions today matter now more than ever.”
A petition launched in the summer of 2022 to save Heppell Farm from becoming developed into industrial buildings had more than 75,000 signatures by Monday night, noted one speaker.
The subject land is comprised of five contiguous properties owned by the government of Canada. Approximately 89 ha (~220 acres) of the lands are currently leased to local agricultural producers for field crop production.
“The Government of Canada is considering disposition of the properties, which may leave the lands vulnerable to future changes in land use,” the ALC proposal states.
“Given the longstanding agricultural use and productivity of the properties, the Commission considers that the lands may be suitable for inclusion to the ALR.
The ALR designation would apply a layer of provincial land use legislation (the ALCA and ALR Regulations) to the lands to preserve their availability for current and future agricultural use.”
Of 365 written submission received by the ALC by 4:30 p.m. Monday (Jan. 23), 363 were in generally in favour of including the land in the ALR, commission land use planner Mike Bandy noted at the start of the meeting.
John Aldag, MP for Cloverdale-Langley City was among the many speakers.
Having tabled a motion before Parliament, Aldag noted “the disposition process has been paused,” by the federal government.
“It raises a few questions. There is a federal disposition process that requires the first step be Indigenous consultation,” he said.
“I do wonder if there was to be a decision by the ALC, that’s something that needs to be really considered.”
The Surrey Board of Trade was among the groups that sent a written submission of support, and Surrey South MLA Elenore Sturko also had her turn at the mic, noting she had the opportunity to visit the Heppell and (Randy) Sahota farms and taste the fresh produce firsthand.
“People want to see this preserved as farmland,” she said, referencing the Joni Mitchell song Big Yellow Taxi (which features the lyrics ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot’).
“Agriculture has been part of the heart and soul of South Surrey. If we were to pave over this, we pave over part of who we are.”
The ALC is expected to make their decision in the next few months.