In the Okanagan and Vancouver Island, there is an urban/rural conflict centered around ALR lands. There is less of a problem in the lower mainland, where larger farming operations continue to consolidate, primarily outside urban limits. In Kelowna, for example, 40% of the land footprint within city limits is designated ALR. While this makes for satisfying green space for residents, it also means that the pressures to successfully farm within urban cost structures and demands make life for farmers more challenging.

As a population, we need all foodstuffs that can be successfully grown on ALR land: if land isn’t conducive to grape growing, perhaps it is adaptable to poultry, livestock, vegetables or soft fruits. It is critical to recognize that maintaining the integrity of the ALR depends on flexible farming practice. Land shouldn’t be released from the ALR because one particular crop isn’t financially viable (i.e. grapes).

Sustainability of BC farming enterprises can be enhanced by government acceptance of agri-tourism as a viable vision for the future.

Background

Using Kelowna as an example, little land has been released in the area in the past decade. Now, ALR land release goes through ALC Commission zones, as well as through municipality or district. Kelowna City Planning does have an agricultural specialist – new in the last year. Given the region’s reliance on agriculture: orchards, farms, wineries, this was a late but now timely addition.

Where problems are emerging is with use on the ALR that is considered non-farm: parking for wedding guests or buses; food service spaces for events, including tasting/cooking classes using on-site grown produce; and decisions that need to be made specific to the region or micro-region. Zones don’t work and rulings vary widely from zone to zone.

Agri-tourism has become a world driver of agriculture, the visitor economy and sustainability. The ALR is a wonderful resource. But if hidebound rules constrain economic success and growth for farmers and push them off the land in favour of mega-farms (as has been seen in the Lower Mainland) – it is in large part a societal and government policy failure.

ALR regulations around land release need to be region- and site-specific. Zones do not work; they are too broad. The mandate of all citizens and policy makers should be to protect what is there, allowing room for temporary farm workers and on-site agricultural-related undertakings. If this means dormitories or hostels for visiting tourists or students – as is seen throughout Europe – it should be allowed. Inflexible, generic rules do not work in the diverse geographic farming province that is BC.

Agri-tourism Internationally

Agriculture and tourism have various economic interlinkages. They share resources such as land or labour to produce either food and/or other farm outputs, or to accommodate, cater for and/or entertain visitors. This is the case in the US, France, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and encouragingly, in India, where the population is migrating to the cities and losing touch with the land.  There are strong interlinkages between agriculture and tourism: farm production of food and other goods for tourists during their stays; export of agricultural products to tourist source cities, provinces or countries after their visits (for example, Kelowna International Airport has recognized this and is promoting it);  accommodation of tourists on the farm (“agri-tourism”); and other complementary services of farming for tourists (e.g., farms as sight-seeing destinations) and vice versa (e.g., farmers working as ski area service staff, bus drivers etc.).[1]

British Columbia Farming Industry

In BC, agriculture represented $3.4 billion in sales in 2018 and an estimated 22,400 people were employed in primary agriculture (2018). The province leads the nation in sales of a number of crops including sweet cherries and grapes, the majority of which are grown in the Okanagan. Major areas for agriculture production in the province are Thompson-Okanagan, Nechako, Kootenay, Cariboo, Mainland/South Coast, North Coast, Peace River and Vancouver Island-Coast regions. The largest number of farms – over 5,700 – is in the Thompson-Okanagan.[2]

Threats to BC’s farming industry include (but are not limited to): lower fresh produce production costs in other parts of the world (dumping), aging farmers with no succession planning (average age of Okanagan farmers is 56; many are looking to retire soon) and government restrictions on on-farm housing. Fewer people are entering the industry. The high cost of agriculture land in the Central Okanagan and around the Province is a deterrent to new entrants to the industry. The seasonal nature of agriculture means large numbers of workers are needed and temporary foreign workers restrictions and delays in processing add additional problems to farm operations.

Agri-tourism development is an economic development strategy that has been demonstrated internationally as a way for farmers to add value to their farm businesses. This major tourism trend focuses on a visitor looking for sustainable, environmentally conscious holidays and authentic travel experiences – experiences that fit well with many agritourism activities.

In Ontario, the provincial government supports opening farm gates to visitors – shifting some of the focus of the operation from production to people. They advise the shift involves innovation, business planning and patience. Farm owners who have successfully integrated agri-tourism into their operations report that the transition has enhanced their lifestyle as well as their business.[3]

In BC, the agricultural landscape is undergoing significant changes due to globalization, advancements in technology and a shift in consumer demands. These changes are forcing farmers to adapt to new realities and to contemplate strategies to keep their farms viable. At the same time, consumer demand for access to locally grown food is increasing.[4]

Over the last decade, the number of BC farmers’ markets has grown from 19 to over 125. Each year, the Farmers and Crafters Market in Kelowna outstrips the previous year’s attendance numbers and it is a similar story in Penticton, Naramata and other Okanagan centres.

Similarly, challenges associated with mass urbanization are well recognized by people living in cities. Many feel disconnected from the natural world, their food supply and local businesses. This results in people seeking refuge in rural areas for recreation experiences and overnight getaways. This trend, already recognized by farmers, should be capitalized on to create new revenue for agriculture through agri‐tourism. The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association began to invest energy and time into becoming a centre for sustainable tourism worldwide in 2012.[5]

ALR regulations must change. In BC, agri‐tourism is defined as a tourist activity, service or facility accessory to land that is classified as a farm under the Assessment Act. These activities may include:

  • an agricultural heritage exhibit displayed on the farm;
  • a tour of the farm, an educational activity or demonstration in respect of all or part of the farming operations that take place on the farm, and activities ancillary to any of these;
  • cart, sleigh and tractor rides on the land comprising the farm;
  • activities that promote or market livestock from the farm, whether or not the activity also involves livestock from other farms, including shows, cattle driving and petting zoos;
  • dog trials held at the farm;
  • harvest festivals and other seasonal events held at the farm for the purpose of promoting or marketing farm products produced on the farm; and
  • corn mazes prepared using corn planted on the farm.

While the list likely includes cooking and tasting classes, it does not include weddings or other large events that can be farm-based in theme. This has caused confusion and difficulties in the Okanagan for farmers attempting to access similar celebratory activities.

Simply put, agri‐tourism is tourism that supports agricultural production. It has been shown to be one of the most effective diversification options for farmers. Integrating agri‐tourism successfully into a farm requires farmers to rethink their product offerings and interact more directly with their customers.[6] In the age of COVID-19 and its impact on the food supply, it is noted that the newly launched AgriRecovery initiatives through the Federal Government, as well as the Emergency Processing Fund, and the Surplus Food Purchase Program and payments through AgriStability[7] will increase stability in agri-tourism.

Sustainable Tourism

Farming is the original sustainable business. The Thompson-Okanagan Tourism Association’s (TOTA) 10-year sustainability strategy was endorsed by its 90 communities and hamlets together with the 33 Indigenous Communities located in the region. The first of its kind in North America, it is the roadmap for regional tourism development, that is both sustainable and thoughtful. It focuses on the three pillars of responsibility: Environmental, Economic and Social. TOTA aligned with GreenStep Solutions committing the organizations to work in implementing green practices.

In 2016, TOTA completed a worldwide search for an organization that could assist in pursuing certification as a Sustainable Tourism Destination culminated in an agreement with the Responsible Tourism Institute (Spain)[8], [9]

The Chamber Recommends

That the Provincial Government:

  1. Hire an independent consultant to review the current ALR land base with the goal of making suggestions for releasing lands deemed not suitable for agriculture;
    1. Task the independent consultant to more clearly define “Not suitable for agriculture”, i.e., not single-crop based;
    2. Ensure the review recommends making corrections that make common sense, not be for the sole purpose of releasing lands;
  2. Re-allocate ALR management structure to allow site-specific land release to be approved by municipalities only, involving the ALC to prevent gutting the ALR; 
  3. Encourage the economic growth of agri-tourism through the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Jobs, Economic Development and Competitiveness through marketing strategies that ensure agriculture comes first and agri-tourism is supported financially;
  4. Enhance sustainability of BC agri-tourism by working with Federal ministries to speed up approvals of temporary foreign workers and reduce the regulatory burden on farmers; and
  5. Enhance sustainability of BC agri-tourism by working with their Federal counterparts in the Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food to ensure the sustainability of small land holdings in BC.

[1] Christian Fischer, Professor of agrofood economics, management and marketing, Free University of Bolzano/Bozen, Italy, EURAC Research, 1st World Congress on Agritourism, Nov 7-9, 2018, https://agritourism.eurac.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/wac_2018_book_of_abstracts_061118_Final.pdf

[2] From Agriculture to Agri-tourism Opportunities for Agri-Tourism in the Central Okanagan, COEDC October 18, 2012, http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/busdev/facts/16-029.htm

[3] Developing an Agri-Tourism Operation in Ontario, May 2016, http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/busdev/facts/16-029.htm

[4] Farm Diversification through Agri‐tourism: Guidebook, BC ministry of Agriculture, January 2017, https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/farming-natural-resources-and-industry/agriculture-and-seafood/farm-management/farm-business-management/business-planning-guides/agritourism_guide_2017.pdf

[5] Building a Sustainable and Responsible Tourism Industry, Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, 2019  https://www.totabc.org/sustainability

[6] Farm Diversification through Agri‐tourism: Guidebook, BC ministry of Agriculture, January 2017, https://www2.gov.bc.ca/assets/gov/farming-natural-resources-and-industry/agriculture-and-seafood/farm-management/farm-business-management/business-planning-guides/agritourism_guide_2017.pdf

[7] https://pm.gc.ca/en/news/news-releases/2020/05/05/supporting-canadas-farmers-food-businesses-and-food-supply

[8] https://www.responsibletourisminstitute.com/en

[9] Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association, 2019  https://www.totabc.org/sustainability