The other evening we hosted another Policy Listening Session, this time checking in with a group of Agricultural Producers to see how City Hall, can assist them. We brought together representatives from the dairy sector, the poultry (Chicken) and egg sectors, the blueberry farmers, swine (pig) farmers, and finally the nursery businesses. Included in this group were federal representatives for their agricultural industry, working at a national level on policy with Federal and Provincial governments. We also had a couple of people who have sat on the City’s Agricultural Commission and on the Agricultural Advisory Committee with unique understanding of the decisions that the City makes regarding agriculture.
Some in attendance supported me and my campaign to become the Mayor while others did not; what they shared was a belief that if I do get elected, I had better understand their industries.
I should add that I grew up in Rosedale and I had my first job on a dairy farm when I was 6 years old, mucking out stalls and feeding calves. I continued to work on dairy farms throughout my schooling, coming home from class to start milking at 4:00 and do the barn chores before dinner and homework. In the summers I worked haying, and other field work for nearby farmers and came to see windows into other farm industries as well. My father is a farm Veterinarian, primarily working with the dairy and swine sectors in Chilliwack, so dirty rubber boots and shop-talk about farming was common place as I grew up. I came to gauge the changing of the seasons by what cut of hay had just been taken in from the fields, how high the corn was, and when the fields were being plowed under or seeded. This exposure helped to inform my respect for our agricultural roots in my work as a councillor; however, I also understood that the small scale 35 cow dairy that I had primarily worked on was not the norm anymore. The industries on agricultural land in Chilliwack have been rapidly evolving and I needed to better understand these modern realities if I was going to be able to make wise decisions about agricultural land zoning, and the many other influences City Council has over farming in our community. Over the last four years I have gone about doing that.
Chilliwack has a long history of being an agricultural community, and even today a large portion of our economy is driven by output generated from farm land. The pressures on agriculture, and specifically the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in Chilliwack today are heightening and this once dominant industry is no longer something that all of our residents understand or appreciate, except perhaps at the times of year when manure is being spread.
We started off as I have become accustomed to doing, simply asking the question of what is it that you think I should know about your industry? And what challenges are you facing? And finally how can we better support you? Immediately the topic of ALR land prices came up. The increasing challenge of purchasing or leasing lands, especially for crops like hay, silage and corn, are necessary and expensive for dairy farming, but are not as profitable per acre as a poultry barn, blueberries, or many other uses. This tension however was felt, at least by those around the table to be caused by two main outside factors. The first is the rampant speculation on farm land along our urban/rural interface. Within the ALR in Chilliwack the vast majority of the land is owned by those who operate on it. On our urban/rural divide that ratio flips, those who own do not occupy, and in many cases are hoping that the City and the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission allow a little bit more farm land to be converted to housing, or light industry. This speculative market artificially drives up land values throughout the ALR in Chilliwack, and those costs become a challenge to those who need to use the land for legitimate cropping purposes. The second major factor is the non-farm-use of ALR lands, meaning those who break the regulations for the land, and instead of farming on it, use it to run construction companies, trucking operations, or a multitude of other businesses that belong on commercial, industrial, and light industrial lands. There was a clear call for the City to enforce our land regulations, and help to eliminate this trend.
The group also spoke about the issue of overcrowded rail lines, currently being used to supplement pipelines as a method of oil transport, and thus making it difficult to get grain from the prairies to their farms. This is especially concerning for poultry farmers who rely on this supply chain as the main feed for their flocks. Others brought up how the City manages, or in some cases, does not adequately manage, our ditches and other waterways. As these watercourses begin to change and fill with organic matter, canary grass and other vegetation, we are seeing new species taking refuge here and calling these changing ecosystems home. Concerns around salmon habitat and the Salish Sucker were top of mind for many.
A universal challenge for all of the producers was our inadequate transportation networks. Whether it is the undersized rural roads for large farm machinery, or the increasing congested Highway # 1, getting goods to market has now become more difficult. A milk truck trip to Burnaby that used to take 60 minutes can now take as long as 90 minutes to 2 hours. This is a massive change in the cost of transport, and those costs are getting passed onto the farmers.
There were many great conversations and a lot of stark honesty about the state of our City and their industries, but the most surprising topic of conversation was the shortage of workers across the industry. There was a general sense that nobody seemed to want to do this kind of work anymore, at least not the long days in the fields or the midnight milkings. Many of the large agricultural producers have moved to employing temporary foreign workers (TFW) to satisfy their huge staffing needs and to get the job done of getting their goods to market. Under the TFW Program it is also mandatory for the employer to secure adequate housing, which is becoming an ever growing problem. As I write this blog, Chilliwack has less than 1% vacancy in the residential rental market, meaning that it is nearly impossible to find a place to live. This may not impact you, or maybe it does, but it could be the difference to your son or daughter, your friend or co-worker, or to the staff you currently employee and your business depends upon. Some of these farmers are actually buying houses for their staff, to address the impossible situation of finding no other option to secure enough workers to fill their needs.
It was a positive evening, and I’m happy to share that I learned a lot from the honest perspectives share at the table. The campaign team and myself had not anticipated having a conversation around availability and affordability of housing when we sat down to meet with a group of Chilliwack farmers that evening; however, their insight into the interconnected nature of the fabric of our community has further informed my understanding of the reality for so many in Chilliwack. When the City falls short on a given portfolio, it can send huge and disruptive shock waves through the community.