BC Minister of Agriculture Pat Pimm's first full cabinet appointment has been a revolving-door post during the past decade. Agriculture has had four separate ministers during B.C.'s 39th parliament, between 2009 and the May 2013 election. The previous parliament had three ministers of agriculture. Pimm intends to bring stability to the ministry while increasing agri-foods revenue to $14 billion in 2017 from $10.5 billion in 2012. Business in Vancouver recently spoke with Pimm about the task ahead.
Q: Premier Christy Clark directed you in your welcome letter to "ensure the agricultural land reserve [ALR] is working for British Columbia and propose changes necessary." What changes could be in store?
A: This government is committed to protect agricultural land. One thing I will look at is to make sure we're protecting the farmer, and farming families as well. That will weigh into the equation. Since 1974 we've added about 39,000 hectares into the ALR. We've also increased the Agricultural Land Commission's budget. Last year they had a $1.5 million cash injection. Over the next three years there will be an additional $4 million.
With that comes a few changes. They have to ensure that they will enhance compliance. So we need to work with them to ensure they do what they've talked about: digitizing some of the mapping projects and looking at some of the boundaries.
Q: What do you see as your ministry's key challenges in the next year?
A: One challenge is to find areas to improve on. We want to grow the sector and that's something we will focus a lot on: trying to get more into the Asian marketplace and grow the sector in general. That's part of the B.C. agri-foods strategy for growth – to grow it to $14 billion industry by 2017.
Q: What are your priorities?
A: Food safety is the highest priority. We are going to be taking over meat inspection from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). We're starting that transition as we speak. We will incorporate some of their folks into our program and do some training on the B.C. side.
We will end up with some of the highest standards in Canada after we start doing this on our own. This will be fully implemented by January 2014.
Q: What was your reaction to the recent false reports of suspected mad cow disease in B.C.?
A: It's something we'll take very seriously. You start mentioning those words, and it gets everybody pretty antsy in an awful hurry.
Q: What's your response to the many farmers who want the government to step up campaigns to encourage buying local products?
A: The buy-local program is certainly something we'll focus on and see if we can't do a little more there. Just about half the food eaten in the province is produced locally. So, if we can bump that number up a bit, and get deeper into the Asian marketplace, we'll be well on the way to meeting our [agri-food strategy] objectives. •
Farmers seek changes to agricultural land reserve
Farmers wanting to modernize the 41-year-old ALR can be encouraged by the directions Premier Christy Clark has given to Pat Pimm.
Clark urged Pimm to "propose any changes necessary" to the ALR in a detailed letter congratulating him on becoming the minister of agriculture.
"I tweak my farm every year," said W.A. Farms owner Bill Zylmans. "With the ALR, we're still working with laws and a program that was put into effect in 1972. We've come a long way since 1972, both inside and outside of agriculture."
The ALR covers approximately 4.7 million hectares and much of it is not used, but simply put aside and uncultivated – often because of poor water access or other obstacles.
Zylmans wants Pimm to save quality farmland and be flexible about allowing people to take land out of the ALR if it's not prime land for farming.
In exchange for removing land, he suggested that those who remove land be required to invest into a fund to improve remaining farmland.
"Maybe Richmond needs a drainage canal to get better-quality water to an area," he said. "Some of the money could go to finance that project."
Other farmers, such as Okanagan Asparagus Farm co-owner Jackie Jeppesen, similarly suggested that municipal governments and the Agricultural Land Commission be more open to changing land use for some sites in the ALR to allow, for example, second homes on a farm.