To say it's tranquil at his East Ladner family farm would be a little clichŽd, but, nonetheless, it's just about right.
Ian Paton admits he enjoys how it's hard to tell there's a burgeoning metropolis just a few minutes drive from his 88th Street hay operation, a farm originally purchased by his grandfather, John Paton, in the 1940s and later run by his dad, Ian Paton Sr.
Giving the Optimist a tour of his well-kept, 60-acre farm, a former dairy operation, Paton proudly points to his childhood home on the property, a small heritage house where his grandparents lived, and now occupied by his mother since his dad passed away. Nearby is a smaller white bungalow where he resides with his wife Pam.
Paton, who has two grown children, one of whom helps out on the farm during the summers, followed in his dad's footsteps to become a farm auctioneer, a nice side business that helps supplement the farm income. In 2010, he was elected to Delta council, becoming the first farmer to occupy a seat on council in two decades.
Paton was asked to give his take on what the Agricultural Land Reserve has meant to him and to the farming community in Delta. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the ALR, a bold and highly contentious concept when it was introduced and one that faces uncertainty today.
"My dad was definitely a big proponent of the Agricultural Land Reserve. There was a lot of negativity about it too. I always considered it a bit of a double-edged sword in some respects because farming was pretty tough back then in the '70s.
"Basically, the bureaucrats took a map of British Columbia with a felt pen and started drawing boundaries all over the province, saying this is in the land reserve and this isn't. So, if you happen to be in a farming area such as Richmond or Surrey or Delta, and were on the opposite side where you weren't in the ALR, suddenly you're rubbing your hands together saying, 'Wow, housing, subdivisions, parks, schools, all those that are big money makers.' Then the guys on the other side of the line felt kind of like they were social outcasts, and the value of the farmland would always be what it is, only used for agricultural purposes."
After the ALR came into effect, Ian Paton Sr., who chaired the Agricultural Land Commission for a number of years, was an outspoken critic of exclusions, especially what he described as the "chopping away" of the reserve. Often warning that farmers, as well as the land, should be supported, he pointed out much of the farmland in Delta and elsewhere in the region was owned by absentee landlords.
Fresh off their provincial election victory the year before, the New Democrat government in 1973 introduced what's still considered a radical law, creating a development exclusion zone aimed at protecting arable farmland.
When it was introduced, the ALR drew an immediate and negative reaction from many Delta farmers, developers and property owners. The legislation was introduced at a much different time in the municipality, an era of tremendous growth following the opening of the George Massey Tunnel over a decade earlier.
A university student around the time the controversial land freeze came into law, Paton noted older farmers, especially those with children that weren't interested in continuing the family business, were unable to get the highest and best dollar for their land.
"To this day, let's say you can get $65,000 or $70,000 an acre for your farmland in Delta, if you weren't in the land reserve, maybe, your land is worth half-a-million dollars an acre. But it's a good thing, because with the land reserve throughout the whole province you didn't have the uncontrolled spread of housing development and shopping centres."
Mayor Lois Jackson, who was a newly elected alderman when the ALR was introduced, recalls provincial politics back in those days were even more "right" and "left" polarized than today. She said it didn't take long, however, for the value of the ALR to become clear as the subsequent right-wing Social Credit government maintained the reserve.
"In retrospect, had the Agricultural Land Reserve not been in place, Delta as we know it would look like Richmond. This flat land we have here in Ladner and Tsawwassen is wonderful to build on.
"The one thing we have to remember is that only five per cent of this very huge province can sustain any type of crop. Without the ALR, we would have far less in production than today."
The person that received the biggest brunt of the 1973 outcry in Delta was Carl Liden, the NDP MLA for the riding.
At a special meeting of the Delta Chamber of Commerce's agriculture committee in January of that year, Liden did his best to explain why the land freeze was necessary, saying speculators owned most of the farmland in Delta.
Noting farmers approached him in favour of the freeze, Liden said the government's position was "to make the best use of the land for all of the people, and to save the farmland but not at the expense of the farmer."
The committee's chair, John Friesen, presented a brief critical of the plan, saying farmland in Delta had been "shamefully raped by all three levels of government" causing an untenable situation for farmers that remained in the area as landowners.
He said it was "grossly unfair to require that these lands remain in agricultural production in an area that is neither economically suited for farming, nor in harmony with the surrounding community."
Friesen blamed the George Massey Tunnel, highways, superport, railway and numerous other expropriations of land for having "knocked the spirit of farming."
Liden would also get an earful at a heated public meeting in Ladner that year, where more than 1,000 people showed up to voice their anger. At that gathering, local farmers and landowners were critical of the New Democrats, saying the government was seizing land while not doing enough to help farmers.
Liden once again tried to explain that real estate firms owned large tracts in Delta.
"I don't think their intention is to farm the land," he said.
At a meeting of the South Delta Taxpayer Society in 1973, Liden noted the government was helping the farmer with the legislation because "this bill will keep farmland prices down to where farmers can afford to buy farmland for farming. It will stop farmers from leaving their lands."
Speaking on behalf of the Delta Farmers' Institute, Mike Guichon made a presentation to government that year, suggesting that a buy-up program was needed to preserve farmland.
"Anything short of this will not work, legislating the land does not legislate the man, and without eager, dedicated farmers there is no farming," he said.
Guichon noted that although Delta's rich, Fraser-deposited soil is some of the finest on the continent, there had been "tragedies committed in the Delta farming community."
He cited the thousands of acres expropriated as back up for the Roberts Bank superport and other contentious expropriations "that chop and slash through for rights-of-way, for roads, highways and pipelines that criss-cross the area."
Much to the chagrin of many, the province enacted the legislation, virtually freezing thousands of acres in Delta.
Forty years later, the ALR has been credited for saving farmland in the Lower Mainland from being paved over, although urban growth, high land prices, increasing costs, urban-rural conflicts and other pressures continue to pose challenges for soil-based farming.
Longtime Richmond council member and farmer Harold Steves, who as an NDP MLA was one of the architects of the ALR, said Delta could soon end up like his community, which has seen much of its farmland devoured despite the ALR.
Richmond lost over 1,600 acres of farmland between the mid-1970s and 2005 through exclusions, noted Steves, a member of the Farmland Defence League of B.C.
Pointing to the construction of the South Fraser Perimeter Road and container terminal expansion as huge pressures in Delta, Steves, in an interview a year ago, said he has real concerns about what will be left.
He admitted the ALR was highly controversial and not well received by the farming community, but now it's recognized that without it there would be no farms left in Greater Vancouver.
Making the news recently is Port Metro Vancouver's proposal to build a second container terminal at Roberts Bank, a development that would require land somewhere, quite possibly in the ALR in South Delta, to service that massive growth.
The future of the ALR in Delta is being questioned more than ever following independent MLA Vicki Huntington's revelation of plans to industrialize hundreds of prime acres with warehouse logistics to support port expansion.
Huntington found that a warehouse developer signed $98 million in options to buy 11 farm parcels near Deltaport Way.
Worried even more exclusions could be on the horizon, she's concerned that if the consortium partnered with Port Metro Vancouver, there may be no need to go through the Agricultural Land Commission to exclude the properties. That's because the port falls within federal jurisdiction.
Noting Delta has already seen a significant loss of agricultural land to the Tsawwassen First Nation treaty, Jackson, Delta's mayor since 1999, wrote to the federal government saying, "While we acknowledge the overall economic impact that Deltaport has on the rest of Canada, we do not believe that this benefit should come at the cost of Delta's fertile farmland."
Port Metro Vancouver CEO Robin Silvester already created a stir for his comments in BC Business, where he suggested, "Agriculture is emotionally important but economically [of] relatively low importance to the Lower Mainland."
He would go on to tell the Optimist there's huge concern about the loss of industrial land in the region, which has the trickle down effect of pressure on agriculturally zoned properties. Silvester favours the creation of an industrial, or a job bank, reserve.
In a presentation to Delta council last fall, Silvester said taking farmland out of the ALR is seen by the port authority as a last resort.
"If we end up in this last resort needing agricultural land - hopefully we won't end up in a position of using agricultural land - there would be discussions with the Agricultural Land Commission and the community what are the appropriate mitigation in terms of improving agricultural capacity... even in Delta there's hectares of land that's not in use but in the ALR," he said.
A recent discussion paper for Metro Vancouver's regional planning and agriculture committee recommended the provincial and federal governments deny further conversion of agricultural lands to industrial uses.
Aimed at identifying best practices for increasing intensive use of the current industrial land supply, the report explains the benefits of industrial intensification includes accommodating increased economic and employment activity on a limited land base, while reducing the pressure to convert agricultural and rural lands to industrial uses.
The regional district says it will collaborate with municipalities, industrial developers and other stakeholders to "explore and advance opportunities" to intensify industrial areas.
Sill not convinced, Huntington told the Optimist, "The disappointing thing is that the port still refuses to take a position that agricultural land is off the table. It continues to say that they must ensure there is an availability of large parcel sizes to meet the needs of the port and that they must link the port with the warehouse/logistics facilities to increase efficiencies."
Huntington noted, "Those statements can mean only one thing and are port-speak for 'we need the agricultural land that is near the port and we need lots of it.'"
She added, "So the battle, and that is what it is, a battle, to protect the agricultural land in Delta and save it from becoming an industrial wasteland is going to be with us for a long time."
The ALR in Delta currently comprises about 9,400 hectares (23,200 acres), of which around 6,700 hectares (16,500 acres), or about 71 per cent, is "actively" and "inactively" farmed.
In his annual report last year, Agricultural Land Commission chair Richard Bullock stated, "After nearly 40 years, I believe the ALR should be looked upon as a solid foundation for the business of agriculture in B.C. Regrettably, however, the foundation has suffered erosion to the land base and loss of support from bona fide farmers and ranchers - but thankfully not to a point that it is irreparable."