Frank Bucholtz

AND FRANKLY: Loss of South Surrey farmland to industry could have far-reaching effects

Heppell farm unique in its ability to avoid flood damage

Agriculture is a very important industry in Surrey and rarely makes news, but word about the possible disappearance of 300 very productive acres has captured a great deal of attention.

The Heppell family, who have been successful farmers in Surrey for a century, produce a variety of soil-based crops – with potatoes being one of the most important. In recent years, they have branched into the Hardbite line of chips made from potatoes and other vegetables.

One of their most important farms is on high land along 192 Street, between 36 and 44 Avenues. The land is owned by the federal government. For many years, it was the site of telecommunication towers, operated by Canadian Overseas Telecommunication Corp. At a time before widespread use of satellites, they played an important role in keeping Canada connected to other parts of the world. The Heppells have leased the land for the past 50 years and it has become one of the most important sources of new potatoes in B.C. The soil has been very well-managed, and because of the high ground and sandy soil, it is barely affected by wet springs such as occurred this year. Other crops such as cabbage and carrots are also grown there.

Such farms are actually quite rare in the Fraser Valley. Most of the land within the Agricultural Land Reserve lies within lower floodplain areas, and can be significantly affected by wet soil conditions. As was seen last November on Sumas Prairie in Abbotsford, this can also occur after the growing season. Flooding there caused extensive damage after water from the U.S., combined with heavy rain, poured onto the former Sumas Lake bed.

In addition to that, many farms in Surrey that once produced a wider variety of vegetables have been converted to other agricultural uses.

There are far fewer acres devoted to vegetable crops than there used to be – which is a constant theme in agriculture, as markets are constantly changing.

This land is not within the ALR. Even if it were, the federal government and some companies under its jurisdiction are not subject to ALR regulations. A good example of this is in Pitt Meadows, where Canadian Pacific Railway has bought a large section of productive farmland within the ALR with plans to convert it to an intermodal terminal. As it is a federally-chartered railway, it can do so and B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission has no say.

A further wrinkle is the fact that both federal and provincial surplus land is frequently used to help resolve land claims by First Nations. In Richmond, the federally-owned Garden City Lands faced an uncertain future for years, after being declared surplus. Eventually, an agreement was reached so the city could buy the land (also very productive farmland) but the Musqueam First Nation had to be involved.

There are suggestions that the Surrey farmland could become an industrial park, as is happening to the immediate south and west. There is no question that industrial land is badly needed, but with issues of changing climate and the growing importance of food security, the highest and best use of this property is as a productive farm.

Local politicians have weighed in, but they have no say in what happens to this land. What is important now is that the public speak up. A petition on change.org had over 30,000 signatures as of early this week. Residents also need to bring the issue up with MPs, MLAs and local council members to ensure that community concerns are heard.

Frank Bucholtz writes twice a month for Peace Arch News and at frankbucholtz.blogspot.com

AgricultureColumnSurrey