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Loss of ‘imperilled’ forest to vineyard sparks debate on farming and biodiversity

‘The Agricultural Land reserve was never intended to be a single-use zone.’

Conversion of an “imperilled” forest type to a vineyard in the Cowichan Valley is sparking a debate over farming’s need to preserve biodiversity in the provincial Agricultural Land Reserve.

“There’s a lot of value in trying to align conservation objectives with agricultural objectives,” says Sean Smukler, an associate professor and director of the Centre for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of BC.

“We need to provide habitat for biodiversity and to ensure those (agricultural) landscapes are producing multiple ecosystem services that people need, like clean water, clean air, mitigation of a warming climate.

Smukler believes conservation and agriculture can work together to achieve a broad range of outcomes.

“If we view farming as stewardship of the land and our food production we can get more functions out of those landscapes without much loss in food production.

“I don’t see conservation and food production having to be directly at odds. I think that’s sort of a false dichotomy in many ways.”

Former NDP cabinet minister Joan Sawicki, a long-standing farmland advocate, agrees.


“I’ve come to the conclusion there are probably very rare situations where there is an either-or between food production in a sensitive, collaborative ecosystem-based way and habitat and conservation concerns,” Sawicki says.

“We are talking about compatible uses that are very much in keeping with the original principle of the ALR, which is keeping the options open and protecting the productivity of the land for future generations.”

Where biodiversity does prevail, governments have an option, she says. “How many millions, billions of dollars have we spent compensating mining companies and forest companies because we decided to establish a park?”

The sudden loss of an at-risk forest in North Cowichan has ignited the biodiversity debate on farmland.

Last spring, it took a feller buncher a week to remove a coastal Douglas-fir (CDF) forest from 24 hectares and set the stage for development of the valley’s largest vineyard.

The CDF forest is the smallest and rarest biogeoclimatic zone in the province, and home to the greatest number of species at risk. It is found on southeastern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and pockets of the mainland. A lengthy public consultation on North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare Municipal Forest Reserve has also found overwhelming public support for conservation management.

The California owners of the vineyard are Barbara Banke, chair and proprietor of Jackson Family Wines, and her daughter, Julia Jackson. The property falls within the Agricultural Land Reserve, which permitted logging the forest for vineyards.

The Jackson family is well known in winery circles and insists “sustainability is in our DNA.” The family says it works to preserve wildlife habitat, minimize environmental impact, and increase biodiversity.

But logging of the CDF forest puts those claims to the test.

The provincial watchdog, the Forest Practices Board, has described the CDF zone as “imperilled.” Logging and private land development are among its leading threats.

The BC Ministry of Forests is among more than 40 conservation groups and levels of government committed to “promoting and protecting” this forest type and its associated ecosystems.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food is not among them. It supports removal of even a rare forest type in support of farm production in the land reserve.

Can these two positions be reconciled?

Jennifer Dyson, a water-buffalo dairy farmer in the Alberni Valley who chairs the Agricultural Land Commission, believes farmers are already headed in the right direction.

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“For every bad story, I’d say there are 20 good stories about what producers are doing without any incentivization,” she says. “They just do it because they know the land.”

In Dyson’s case, about 25 hectares of her 70-hectare farm property remain treed to enhance biodiversity and absorb water to prevent soil erosion. A creek supporting coho salmon flows through her property.

“Certainly, within the ALR you can remove trees,” she says. “My personal feeling is that we work with the land rather than control it. It really comes down to a personal choice.”

As human populations grow, farmers find themselves under greater scrutiny, Dyson said. But she would be loathe to add new restrictions on farmers, saying the sector already struggles with speculators who own farmland but don’t farm, while young people fight to get into the business.

“From a public point of view, we all need to do the best we possibly can and we always look to government or someone to regulate us and that does not go over very well,” she says. “At the end of the day, dare I say, people still want the cheapest food they can get."

According to the land commission, about 1.4 percent of Vancouver Island falls within the land reserve.

In May 2023, a Minister’s Advisory Group issued a report on “regenerative agriculture” and agricultural sustainability which emphasized the importance of promoting soil health, biodiversity and both ecological and water balance.

Says Dyson: “It involves everyone getting engaged, from the grassroots to the politicians, and buying into it.”

Some programs are already available to farmers.

BC’s Environmental Farm Plan Program seeks to reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment, while improving efficiencies and opening new markets. But the program is voluntary, and lacks enforcement.

Sixteen percent of BC’s farms accounting for 22.5 percent of farmed land participate in the program.

“It’s about understanding all the rules and regulations that exist to farm on your property,” Dyson says.

The program also emphasizes the important role farmland can play in protecting natural wetlands, forests, and grasslands.

“Loss of habitat to agricultural development is associated with a disproportionately high number of species at risk in agricultural areas,” the program reads. “Agricultural land makes up approximately seven per cent of Canada’s land base, yet more than half of the terrestrial species at risk are found in agricultural areas.”

Other initiatives include the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust, which provides economic incentives for farmers to plant hedgerows and crops that provide foraging and resting habitat for wildlife.

Another program is Farmland Advantage, which compensates BC farmers for ecosystem services such as stream setbacks, reforestation, rotational grazing practices on rangeland, thinning and pruning tree stands.

Smukler would like to see more such incentives, but suggests government might also consider “taxes or stiffer laws around what constitutes appropriate use of the ALR or forest protection.

“It is concerning when you hear about wild lands being turned into agriculture. That’s not a good news story, but there are lots of underutilized agricultural areas in the province. The reality is that to ensure our food security, which we’re not doing, those lands should be in production.”

Sawicki’s agricultural and conservation roots run deep.

She worked as a staffer for the land commission at its inception in 1973, and married Gary Runka, the commission’s first general manager, in 1978.

As Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, Sawicki resigned in 1998 to protest the NDP invoking for the first time the “provincial interest” clause allowing the government to override a decision of the land commission and remove farmland for a planned development at Six Mile Ranch near Kamloops.

About one year later, she was back in government, this time as minister of the same environment ministry she had left.

“We lost 300 acres of land from the ALR basically for a developer…and, as often happens, nothing was done, no development was built, and that land remains excluded from the ALR in the middle of all that critical range land within the ALR,” Sawicki says.

“The ALR was never intended to be a single-use zone. It always encompassed compatible uses, defined as those that didn’t destroy the capability of the land to grow food at some future time.”

Monoculture farming — the planting of one type of crop on a specific field— can be especially harmful to biodiversity, soil health, pollinators, and water sources.

“Those are some of the changes in thinking that we need to do, right?” Sawicki says. “We talk about industrial, large-scale agriculture often geared to exports and global competitiveness, etc.

“More and more, some of this large-scale monoculture agriculture, the farmers are understanding they have to be better stewards of the land. It’s a change in thinking.

“If we really want to embrace and recognize biodiversity, the need to maintain healthy ecosystems, then I’d like to see us put more energy into the regenerative agriculture movement…along with producing for food for ourselves and every other species.”

Regenerative agriculture also fits nicely with an Indigenous concept of food — beef cattle or deer, raspberries or wild berries, Sawicki says.

“This is all food which we intentionally produce through agriculture but which nature also produces for us.

“This is common ground, these are allies not enemies. There’s no conflict here.”

( photos of North Cowichan vineyard, and Joan Sawicki. Coleman Meadows Farm photo of Jennifer Dyson and water buffaloes).

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— Larry Pynn, Dec. 11, 2023


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