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For farmers, accommodation is key for local food

Jim and Catherine Gowans, who run Omnivore Acres, are up and working at 7 a.m.
Jim and Catherine Gowans of Omnivore Acres want to build a tiny home or cabin for a farm worker, but they say the process is cumbersome. (Hugo Wong/News Staff)

Jim and Catherine Gowans, who run Omnivore Acres, are up and working at 7 a.m.

Their six-acre farm in Central Saanich is not large but it keeps them busy. They have one employee, who has been working with them for a few years, and they would like to offer her a full-time job on the farm. But for her to give up her other job, she needs a nearby place to live. The Gowans say if local food production is to increase, farm worker accommodation, like a suite or a tiny home, should be easier to build.

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“There’s a lot of branding in Central Saanich about the value of agriculture and the value of maintaining agriculture,” said Catherine, “but when it gets down to boots on the ground to get things done, there’s a lot of layers of politics to get through.”

There are currently provincial and local regulations on how local farm worker housing must be built (which is distinct from federally regulated temporary foreign worker housing).

According to Coun. Niall Paltiel of Central Saanich, the District currently takes a net-zero approach to suites, where some residents have been asked to decommission suites on their property if they want to add new, external accommodation.

In the case of the Gowans, who do not have a suite, the ALC does allow some types of farm worker housing.

They allow a mobile home for a family member, or a suite above an existing barn. However, to build a tiny home requires applying to the ALC for a non-farm use, according to Central Saanich director of planning and building servies, Jarret Matanowitsch. After that, local government would decide whether to issue a temporary-use permit or not. The Gowans say the process is lengthy and the result is never certain.

Since the District is reviewing its housing policies as part of an infill and densification project, Paltiel says hve wants to use the opportunity to support a net-one housing policy, so residents can add one more suite or tiny home on their property.

Paltiel said he has spoken to many farmers who have trouble retaining employees due to housing problems. That, he said, affects a farmer’s ability to get their food onto the market.

“Housing is something we can realistically control as elected people municipally…and if someone has a footprint existing on a farm property or wants to add a temporary structure like a tiny home, perhaps we should be looking at a net-one policy instead of a net-zero policy,” said Paltiel.

The net-zero policy is a precedent set by staff, said Paltiel, who said that was not a criticism, but simply a precedent carried forward from years of practice. He said given the high cost of housing, “I think it’s something the District should have a conversation about reconsidering,” but only if it was safe, compatible with the neighbourhood, has a low-impact on land and doesn’t create parking problems.

Paltiel supported a motion by Coun. Bob Thompson to ask planning departments of Saanich, Central Saanich, North Saanich, and Metchosin (the four municipalities in the Peninsula & Area Agricultural Commission), to review the best practices for farm worker housing, which passed unanimously on June 18.

“It’s getting harder for farmers to age in place, plan for succession, and create a viable business,” said Paltiel, “so finding ways to reduce costs and keep employees closer to work, I think, is a significant step in the right direction.”

Paltiel suggests using temporary use permits for this issue, so the District can revisit the issue in a few years and decide if it’s working. This method was recommended by a 2010 report issued by the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria, which examined the bylaws for other municipalities and interviewed workers and farmers about their needs. The Gowans say the report is still good but its recommendations have not been acted on.

The Gowans knew about the Ministry of Agriculture’s consultation on the future of the Agricultural Land Reserve, which accepted submissions until April 30 of this year, but they did not submit because the deadline was during a busy time of year for farmers.

“I don’t know why they need hearings because they could have just read their own report,” said Jim. “It’s pretty clear what needs to happen and nothing is happening.”

An email to the PNR from the Ministry of Agriculture says “it is clear British Columbians have ideas on residential uses in the ALR, as the topic was identified by 866 submissions to the independent ALR review committee.”

The ministry will release the recommendations this summer, and Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham anticipates bringing forward new legislation this fall.

In addition to addressing the immediate labour shortage, Catherine said having a full-time farm worker would train the next generation of farmers, and make older farmers more willing to keep their land.“Wealthy people are building estates on farmland, and you know, good for them, but that doesn’t help our local food situation,” said Catherine.

“It’s not about building massive new structures on farmland or any kind of sprawl,” said Paltiel. “In fact, I believe that the way you prevent sprawl and keep our land rural and beautiful and natural is to find ways to create more viable farming operations for farmers.”