Speculators that own Delta farmland should be required to farm their lands.
That's what Coun. Ian Paton had to say as the future of Delta's agricultural lands has recently been making news again.
"I think these people should be forced to offer them out to active farmers at, let's say, two or three hundred bucks an acre as rented land to get it back into production. If not, they should be taxed at a different tax rate if they have no interest in farming it," Paton told the Optimist in a recent interview.
An inventory conducted on the municipality's farmland in the summer of 2010 found there are thousands of acres that are designated agricultural but aren't being actively farmed.
That information was presented to Delta's agriculture committee by Ministry of Agriculture staff.
According to the report, the Agricultural Land Reserve in Delta consists of 9,403 hectares. Ninety-four percent of the ALR was surveyed, consisting of a total of 8,843 hectares, while 560 hectares (six per cent) were not surveyed because they were deemed not available for farming.
In terms of land cover in the ALR, a total area of 6,691 hectares (71 per cent) was "actively" and "inactively" farmed.
Meanwhile, an additional 189 hectares of land outside of the ALR were farmed.
There's several reasons for lands not being farmed including properties sitting vacant for speculation, said Paton, noting the problem of speculators holding onto and not farming lands dates back several decades.
According to Delta's agricultural plan, agriculture competes for land with various non-farm uses looking for acreage, pastoral setting, profit on speculation and spaces to carry on non-farming activities. One of the recommendations is to explore financial mechanisms to address farmland speculation and deter nonagricultural development on farmland.
The report also notes, "Leasing farmland from non-farming landowners is one of the more affordable ways to obtain access to land in high real estate value regions, of which Delta is one. A high proportion of Delta's commercial farming is conducted on rented land (approximately 50 per cent of the farmland base). Leases on farmland are also attractive to new farmers who may not be in a position to tie up large amounts of capital in land assets."
Paton, a longtime farmer and chair of Delta's agriculture committee agreed, saying, "There's so many levels of government and only so many things Delta can do, but there's also a lot of things that can be done at the (agricultural) land commission level to get these foreign owners to actively farm the land again, rather than have it just sit idle."
Delta South MLA Vicki Huntington said if land isn't being farmed, it's probably either being held for speculation by non-farmers, or it's marginal lands that are not productive.
"Then, of course, we have land deliberately not being farmed in an effort to pretend it is marginal, which is something else again and happens a lot," she told the Optimist.
"If the land is marginal and not good for agriculture then the ALC should review it and remove it from the ALR," she said, adding, "I think the only way you could stop land being held for speculation is to have an independent - not hired by the owner but paid for by him or her - agrologist classify the land and recommend improvements, and tax the heck out of it if it remains idle."
Huntington noted incentives could be offered, but then those would also have to be made available to the productive farmers, which could prove costly.
Metro Vancouver's agriculture committee was told the ALR failed to protect agricultural lands within Metro Vancouver and, as a result, the food security of the region is undermined.
At a workshop hosted by Metro Vancouver's agriculture committee, chairperson Harold Steves noted, "A Ministry of Agriculture report stated we need to find an additional 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland in this region if we are going to continue to feed ourselves and the additional 800,000 people expected in the next 15-20 years. Where do we find these lands?"