The mayors debate: agriculture

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Forum tonight
Flynn, Hnatiw and Division 1, 5 and 6 candidates will face off against each other tonight at the first of two election forums hosted by the Morinville & District Chamber of Commerce. The forum will feature written and verbal questions from the audience.

The forum is at Gibbons School on Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. If you miss it, the next forum, which will feature all county candidates, is at Cardiff Hall (57 Mill Road) on Oct. 10 at 7 p.m.

The roots of Sturgeon County are in its soil. In a place with so many farms and so many long-time farm families, it’s no surprise that the future of farming has been on the minds of many residents in the lead-up to this fall’s county election.

That issue was front and centre at county council during this year’s land-use bylaw debate, where hundreds turned out to speak against proposals to regulate hours of operation for agri-business. Council ultimately voted in favour of a motion from Mayor Tom Flynn to suspend all work in the land-use bylaw that affected agricultural industries pending development of an agricultural master plan, but left many questions about the place of farms in the county unanswered.

This week, the Gazette asked mayoral candidates Alanna Hnatiw and Tom Flynn how they would cultivate the future of farming if elected.

Change on the farm

Both candidates acknowledged the importance of agriculture in Sturgeon County.

In her written statement, Hnatiw noted that agriculture was the top land use in the county, with some 380,000 acres used for crops and 75,000 for pasture, resulting in some $231 million in gross farm receipts in 2016.

Flynn said agriculture was the basis on which the county was built, and there were all kinds of ways in which it would diversify.

“I’m just driving back on the highway, and I’m seeing crops growing that we never grew 15 years ago,” he said, and whole new industries developing.

“We have to find ways to encourage that and develop those industries so every square foot can be productive and feed people.

When asked why the county’s land-use law had originally tried to regulate agri-business, Flynn said that was an overreaction on the part of county staffers. The proposed hours of operation were an example that should never have made it into the draft, and were not an attempt to regulate combines.

“I grew up as a farmer and I’m very connected with the agricultural industry. What I recognized was that there was a lot more (work) to be done and we have to understand it much better.”

Hnatiw said residents at the bylaw’s public hearing were asking for proper consultation on a draft that they had received just 60 days before.

“County administration and council pushed through an LUB that is very unpopular with a large number of residents,” she said, and would have negative effects on “pretty well all forms of land use in Sturgeon County.”

“Many of the residents I have talked to feel that those members of council that voted to pass the LUB betrayed them on this issue.”

Hnatiw said the county needed to review and amend the land-use law to protect the needs of all landowners if it wanted to be open for business.

When asked how the county should protect good farmland, Hnatiw said it should happen through the agricultural master plan with the help of independent agrologists.

Flynn said that the county had a responsibility to protect as much agricultural land as it could to feed the world and protect the future. The Edmonton Metropolitan Region Growth Plan he helped write at the Capital Region Board would protect some 250 quarter-sections of land from development over the next 30 years and encourage cities to grow up instead of sprawling out. Council had also designed the new land-use bylaw to limit the number of subdivisions that could be placed on good farmland and encourage residential growth on poorer quality soil.

When it came to how to encourage agri-business, Hnatiw said the county needed to provide good roads for transportation and basic services such as weed control, in addition to enabling diversification of farm production through proper districting of land. She called for land to be rezoned to accommodate agri-business growth on farms, industrial areas, and near rail and provincial highways. The county should also lobby for upgrades to Hwy. 37 and 44.

Flynn said the county should start with a broad round-table talk with foresighted farmers to set out what’s possible in the future of farming.

“I think we can also take a serious look at an agricultural-industrial type park,” he continued, one where the county would work to attract businesses and industry linked to farms. The county should create an agri-business incubator as well.

When asked what should go into the county’s agricultural master plan, Hnatiw offered no specifics, but said it should be developed after full consultation with all relevant stakeholders.

Flynn said the master plan would likely involve a task force to examine farm/non-farm conflicts and the differences between traditional farms and agri-businesses such as Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm. It would involve farmers, planners, and the University of Alberta, study similar plans in other jurisdictions, and explore the idea of an agriculture/industrial park for value-added businesses and research.

“We have to find out what kinds of things we dream we could be doing 20 and 30 years down the road that fit into that future economy,” he said, noting that this could involve changes to a whole host of regulations.

Next week, the mayoral candidates will debate intergovernmental relations.

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About Author

Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.