ALR reforms ease way for breweries, value-added plants

Province hopes relaxed rules tempt farmers to branch out into new agri-business ventures

B.C. Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick outlines changes to agri-business rules in the Agricultural Land Reserve at Evergreen Herbs in Surrey Monday.

Breweries, distilleries and meaderies will be allowed to open up on farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve provided they meet the same rules set out for wineries.

That’s one of a series of reforms announced by the province Monday that aim to make it easier for farmers to set up agricultural processing plants and otherwise earn more money from their land.

As with wineries in the ALR, at least half the farm ingredients that go into the beer, spirits or mead must be grown on the farm.

Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick noted hops farming is on an upswing in areas such as Chilliwack and Kamloops, and predicts the rule change will create an incentive for more farmers to take a risk and get into beverage production.

“If that means you can enjoy some mead or some beer on a piece of farmland and that’s what it takes to get that farmland back into production, I’m okay with that,” Letnick said in an interview at an herb farm in Surrey.

ALR land can also now be leased for farming without applying to the Agricultural Land Commission – a move the province hopes gets more unused land into production.

Another rule change will make value-added processing easier by letting farms band together as co-ops and count all their members’ crops toward meeting the same 50 per cent local content rule. That’s expected to allow clusters of farms to feed into a plant in the ALR that makes something like juice or jam without seeking ALC approval.

Metro Vancouver previously registered concern that looser rules for non-farm uses may result in less land being farmed and a further climb in farmland prices beyond what new farmers can afford.

“Some people wanted us to do more, some wanted us to do less,” Letnick said.

“I firmly that believe we’ve come up with the right balance that promotes agriculture and safeguards agriculture but also provide for more opportunities for farmers to earn income on their land.”

Winery restaurants in the ALR will now be allowed to serve alcohol they didn’t produce, such as beer.

Some reforms apply only on farmland outside the Lower Mainland, Letnick said, because he said farmers face a tougher struggle to earn a living in areas such as the Interior, North and Kootenays.

A second home can now be built on large parcels of at least 50 hectares in the ALR’s rural Zone 2 provided residential uses make up less than 43,000 square feet.

Letnick said that could allow farmers to build another house for family, lodging for workers, or a rental to earn extra money to support the farm.

Similarly, retiring farmers in Zone 2 will be allowed to sell the farm but lease back their farmhouse from the new farm owner, who can build another home on the property.

It’s hoped that will help those retiring farmers sell their farms but encourage them to stay there and perhaps mentor a new, younger farmer, Letnick said, and meet the challenge of the coming “generational change” in agriculture.

Second dwellings are still on the same parcel of land, which can’t be subdivided without asking the ALC.

More proposed reforms relating to agri-tourism are still being considered and are to be put to local governments for feedback in the fall.

Asked if he intends to increase the ALC’s budget so it can hire more compliance and enforcement officers – just three officers patrol the entire province for violations like illegal fill dumping – Letnick said that’s under consideration.

He said the ALC’s budget is now $3.4 million, up from $2 million, and potential increases will be discussed with new ALC chair Frank Leonard.

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