Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Vancouver Sun: Wildfires first priority for an agriculture minister with big plans

Reprinted from the Vancouver Sun

Lana Popham is B.C.'s new agriculture minister, after years as the NDP farm
critic and a pre-politics career as a farmer.

AUGUST 14, 2017 04:34 AM

The wildfires raging across the Interior have killed livestock, destroyed farms and devoured crops. Losses, both economic and personal, will be felt by farmers long after the flames are extinguished.
“It’s devastating,” said Popham, fresh from Kelowna where she recently met farmers and ranchers to discuss the disaster. “There are ranchers who have had operations for over 100 years and now they’re gone.”
With an estimated 30,000 cattle running loose across rangeland as fires continue to burn through forests and fences, the new government remains in emergency response mode. But she hopes that within a month, recovery can begin.
“This is unprecedented, so our response will be an unprecedented response,” said Popham. “A disaster of this magnitude is going to take some thinking about rural economic development. We have to move forward from this — and we will.”
The new minister’s positive attitude and determination to strengthen B.C.’s agriculture sector was clearly evident as she spoke to Postmedia about her new role last week. Below is an edited and condenses version of the interview.
Q. You have a background in farming and you’ve been the opposition agriculture critic since 2009. Did you expect to be named agriculture minister?
A. The decade before I became an MLA, I was a farmer; I was a grape farmer and a vegetable farmer. That experience led me to politics. I was really lucky to have access to my own land, but I watched young farmer friends who were leasing land only to have the owners change their minds. I thought to myself, “Why do people have to fight to farm in British Columbia?”
I ran to be an MLA in 2009, and I was elected. I was super grateful to be assigned the role of agriculture critic. This past election was my third. I got a call from Premier John Horgan asking me to be the minister of agriculture, and it was one of the best days of my life.
Because I was the ag critic for eight years, I joke that I tried to corner the market on that role. It’s like I’ve had training wheels for the last eight years. I’ve had the opportunity to go out and meet with the agriculture community from one end of this province to the other, so I definitely have an excellent background.
Q. The ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) was established by the NDP in 1973. Revitalizing the ALR and the ALC (Agricultural Land Commission) was identified as a priority in your mandate letter. What will that look like?
A. The ALR has been eroded over the last 16 years. We will be doing consultation work with the public, the farming community and businesses, but I feel like I’ve already been consulting on this for the last eight years. I know that there were a lot of people who were disappointed when the ALR was broken into two zones by the last government (with different rules around removal land from the ALR in the Lower Mainland than in the rest of the province), and there has been an overwhelming request to bring it back to one zone with the same mandate governing both zones.
The mandate of the ALC is to protect the ALR and encourage farming, and in many ways, it hasn’t been able to fulfil that mandate for a long time. Currently we have six regional panels that review applications for exclusions and inclusions — and the majority of applications are for exclusions. There was a report in 2010 that recommended one panel instead of six, and I can see the merit in conversations around that. Having one provincial panel really takes away any political influence. 
In 2010, a review of the reserve was suggested and a boundary review was started. It was stopped, but we will be looking at a boundary review again. When the original lines were drawn, some lands shouldn’t have been in, and some lands should have been. We’re not looking at major change, but it could use some tweaking.
Q. Could land removals — like the 500 acres Abbotsford council is asking the ALC to remove for industrial use, for example — be less common going forward?
A. Because the ALC is supposed to be independent, that lies in their hands. There are applications for exclusions right now, and that’s very worrisome. From my perspective, the way things have played out over the last 16 years, the reserve is being treated like a land bank for development, and that has to stop.
So my expectation of the ALC is to uphold the mandate. When an exclusion comes up that is a large exclusion for light industry, I expect them to uphold the mandate of protecting farmland and encouraging farming. I have yet to have a conversation with the commission mostly because we haven’t had time, but also because it has to be an independent tribunal, so any interference by me goes against how I wish it to operate. That being said, we will have to make some changes to make sure that the mandate is a priority. 
Q. In the past you’ve spoken about the ramifications of flooding farms in the Peace River Valley for the Site C dam. Will you fight the project?
A. I’ve always said that it should be sent to the B.C. Utilities Commission and now that it is, we need to trust that process. I am hopeful that we won’t be losing the farmland that’s associated with Site C. That said, if we do lose the land, we will continue with a heavy focus on the rest of the Peace region and come up with a development plan.
Q. You’re a big supporter of local food. How will the Grow B.C., Feed B.C., Buy B.C. programs identified in your mandate differ from what the Liberal government did to promote local food?
A. It’s very different. The Grow B.C. branch is centred on the ALR and policies that support farmers. I’ve often heard that when the land was protected, we forgot about the farmers. Part of that is a focus will be on getting young people into farming.
The part of our plan that will be the biggest game-changer is the Feed B.C. policy. We’re very much focused on moving more grown-and-processed-in-B.C. food into our hospital system and anywhere we’re purchasing food as a government. The last government had a very, very strong focus on the international market, and while we support developing the international market, I believe that took the focus off the domestic market.
We’ll also be bringing back our Buy B.C. program. The last government’s marketing of Buy Local was very piecemeal: Growers had to apply for it and certain producers got a grant. Mass marketing works much better. The Buy B.C. program was an incredible program in the 1990s. It hasn’t been working for 16 years, but British Columbians still recognize it. The opportunities to grow that in a more modern way are huge.
Q. Your government is planning a B.C. Food Innovation Centre — what is this?
A. This is something that almost every other province has, and it’s really connected to food processing. Right now when a startup business wants to find some product to process, they often don’t have a facility to develop it in. So they spend their research and development money in other provinces. This is something that we are absolutely set up for in B.C. if we create an innovation centre.