Friday, May 21, 2010

More thoughts on the Vantreight proposal

I have been looking for alternatives to the development as ways to ensure one of the most significant farming operations in our region stays in operation for the next generation of the Vantreight family.  

I see Central Saanich speaks a lot about supporting the rural nature of the municipality and the fact they value farming.   What I do not see are any actions Central Saanich is taking that actually make a difference for the farmers.  

What I see are a lot or rules and restrictions to development of land.   That is all fine and wonderful for people who want a bucolic landscape, but it does nothing to help preserve the economic viability of farming.  The OCP wants to retain the agricultural land but there is nothing within it to show the residents of Central Saanich will pay for it.   The majority in Central Saanich are asking the minority, farmers, to accept the burden of the costs of the OCPs rural desires.

The ALR was a good thing for farms and together with farm status within the property tax system, many farms were saved.   The primary reason the farms in Gordon Head were developed is because the property tax bill for the farmers was simply way too high to be able to continue to own the land.   The farmers were forced off that land due to how their land was valued.  

I look through the OCP and I find not a single concrete example of what Central Saanich will do to actually support the 25 farms that are making a real go of it?

As someone that has worked on farming and small scale food processing business planning and knows something about the economics of agriculture, I can only say I am amazed anyone still farms in the CRD.  the fundamental reality is that an operation much smaller than what the Vantreights operate now, already very small.  The only reason the farm can continue is because there is a next generation willing to take it on.

From the OCP

A key objective of the OCP is to ensure the sustainability and economic viability of the
District’s agricultural community as an integral part of farming on the Saanich Peninsula.

Allowing the Vantreight property to be sold off piece meal runs directly counter to a key objective of the OCP.   The Vantreights not only farm their 400 acres, but they also lease almost the same amount of farmland.  They alone account for the equivalent of almost 10% of the ALR in Central Saanich, The area of land that they farm is equal to 13% of the land farmed in Central Saanich

There are only 16 operating farms in Central Saanich of more than 70 acres.  There are less than 25 agricultural operations in Central Saanich that are family supporting economically viable.

There are 112 farms in Central Saanich, 62% of the total, that produced less than $10,000 in gross income. These are in almost all cases not real farms at all but people seeking to get farm status for the purposes of their property taxes.   Many of these operations are hobby horse farms and not paying their fair share in taxes.  A high portion of active farming in Central Saanich is growing hay......

Whoever you slice it, the loss of the Vantreight farm would mean the loss of a significant portion of farm land in Central Saanich from active use.   There is no feasible way anyone can raise the funds to buy the farm as it is and in individual parcel most will be purchased by people wanting private estates.   If one were to take the Vantreight farm out of the mix, gross farm receipts in Central Saanich would drop by 15 -30% in my quick estimate.

If Ian Vantreight had not taken the action he did and buy out his brother, the farm would be no more.  I find it insulting that people say he all he did was make a bad business decision.   This is a man risking his and his sons financial well being to preserve farming in this region.   He did not make a business decision, he made decision to protect Central Saanich's rural nature.   I can not think of anyone else who has done as much to save the farmland the OCP wants protected than Ian Vantreight.

So where was the council?   No where to be seen to ensure the farm survived.

The Hill proposal is an interesting and innovative solution that should be applauded.  There are few solutions that strike as most in keeping with the spirit and intent of the both the Regional Growth Strategy and the Central Saanich OCP than the Vantreight proposal.   The OCP makes it clear that farming is key in Central Saanich, it is listed ahead of everything else.  Clearly the intent in the OCP is to do whatever is possible to make farming possible.   This proposal not only costs Central Saanich nothing, it gets more and better protection for agricultural, more tax dollars, and the highest quality development ever seen in Central Saanich.

Saying NO does not mean the status quo continues, saying no without a reasonable alternative solution is sticking your head in the sand.   It also sends a message that Central Saanich will not lift a finger to protect family farms and the heritage of the area.

I have yet to hear any serious alternative solutions.   One solution proposed is at best laughable and at worst verging on criminally naive, that idea is having the land purchased by a trust and then farmed on a lease basis.   The example of why this can not work is Madrona farm.   One 26 acre piece of farm land more than stretched the limits of fundraising.   There is no way that this is a model that will be able to purchase more than a few small parcels of land.   It will not work for something on the scale of the Vantreights.  

The solution also has a fundamental problem in that farmers need access to financing to be able to afford to buy the equipment to farm and be able to build the infrastructure needed.   They need land as collateral to get banks to lend them the money they need to operate.  The leases would have to be fully transferable and have terms of decades to have any value for borrowing money.

Here are some possible solutions I can think of

  1. A grant from Central Saanich to the Vantreights in the amount of the value the development would bring them.   In return Central Saanich gets the lots amalgamated and would get the 36 hectare hill.
  2. The development goes ahead and Central Saanich commits to depaving or acquiring 36 hectares of land elsewhere in Central Saanich.

It seems to me that people are much more interested in protecting the image of what a bucolic landscape is than actually protecting farming.   It is also interesting that people are all gung ho about protecting heritage buildings but when there is a family that is more part of our regions heritage than any building I can think of, it becomes "a bad business decision" when they act to preserve the heritage of the region.
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