Saanich Peninsula towns see positives in CRD farmland acquisition plan

Capital Regional District looking to create fund to purchase agricultural land to keep in public hands.

A Capital Region farmland trust could see municipalities pay into a fund to acquire more public agricultural land.

Municipalities on the Saanich Peninsula and across the Capital Regional District (CRD) will look into preserving more farm land.

The CRD is proposing a new Regional Farm Land Trust, which would be designed to put funds in place to acquire vulnerable farm land or land that is still viable for agriculture. It would also help young farmers obtain the land.

The idea was brought to the CRD table last Wednesday and is an initiative from the District of Saanich.

“It’s kind of a land bank, but with this expressed purpose of acquiring and protecting farmland,” said Dean Murdock a Saanich councillor and chair of that municipality’s environment committee.

He said it’s not dissimilar to what they do with the parks acquisition fund. He said a Trust would allow one to acquire those lands and put them into production by working with new farmers who haven’t got the opportunity to purchase land themselves.

Murdock said in areas like the CRD, where land costs are expensive for many retiring farmers, there aren’t a lot of options in terms of selling the farm to keep it in production as new farmers just don’t have the means to buy it. The Trust, he said, would then bridge that divide so they could acquire the lands from farmers who desire to keep the land in production and create, through a lease arrangement, affordable access to the farmland for new farmers.

Their is currently an existing Farmlands Trust (Greater Victoria) Society in Central Saanich, which is a society that was established with the expressed purpose of managing a parcel of land. A regional one, Murdock said, would work with farm holdings across the CRD.

“There is a model already in place at Haliburton Farm and I think that’s the general concept one would look at where we own the land but the land is leased out to farmers,” said Central Saanich Mayor Ryan Windsor.

Windsor said it would be similar to the parks fund where everyone pays into the fund and in this case, the fund would then be used to acquire land.

“So the district in a way has a very focussed single example of this in that we were bequeathed the Newman Farm 20 odd years ago and a group came forward and said ‘we’d like to farm it,’” he said

He said if a municipality were to choose to participate, there would be a charge per door that would then go into the fund.

Windsor said this initiative will be brought to the council table in the near future to see if there is support going forward for Central Saanich.

North Saanich is also looking at the initiative favourably.

“I’m certainly supportive of the initiative myself and I’m pretty sure my council is,” said Mayor Alice Finall.

She said although they haven’t had further discussions on it in a planning sense at their own council, it’s something they supported in the Regional Growth Strategy Review. Their Advisory Boards Commissions also supported it.

“I am in support of looking into that and trying to follow through with it, beginning a process where we can acquire publicly owned farm land in the region that we can lease and encourage young farmers, and allow more food to be produced on agricultural land in the region,” she said.

Finall also mentioned Sandown as an example of North Saanich’s focus on keeping agricultural land in public hands. The former horse racing track was split in a deal with its owners and the municipality. In exchange for a 12-acre parcel for commercial use, the owners gave North Saanich 85 acres that will transition into agricultural use.