Stand up for the land, say county farmers

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Sturgeon County’s heart is in its farms, and farmers want county council to step up to defend them.

That’s the main message of a new report on the state of agriculture in Sturgeon County that council received on June 12. The report, which was based on a series of open houses and focus groups on farming held earlier this year, is meant to shape the county’s stance towards the proposed regional agricultural master plan now under development by the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board.

Farmers see Sturgeon as the heart of agriculture for this region, but found that development and growth was taking place without consideration for farms, the report found.

The county says farmland is important, but ditches that idea whenever an industrial or residential use for it comes up, said Wayne Groot, whose potato farm has been hemmed in by farmland rezoned to industrial use.

“They say protecting good agricultural land is a priority in the county, but it doesn’t appear to be (that way) at all.”

Farmers need the county’s commitment to keep agriculture viable and “not allow agriculture to get weeded out,” the report found.

The report called on the county to make a clear commitment to agriculture as a priority, one that included guiding principles on how agriculture will operate, a commitment to prevent indiscriminate development that harms food production, and a process to review all developments in terms of how they would affect area farms.

The report recommended more efforts to educate landowners on the impacts of farms – something High Q Greenhouses owner Michiel Verheul supported.

“If you move beside a dairy farm, there’s bound to be some flies and bound to be a smell.”

Stand up for farms

Sturgeon has the biggest farms (on average) and the highest gross total farm sales in the Edmonton region, the report found. Farmers take great pride in their region’s climate, soil, and agricultural history.

“In a sense, not only is Sturgeon County the heart of agriculture in the region, but it is also true that, historically, agriculture is the heart of Sturgeon County,” the report found.

But farmers are a shrinking voice as well. Less than two per cent of Albertans are farmers, and the number of farms continues to decline as farms get bigger. Farmers report rising conflicts with new subdivisions and regulations, and fear for the future of their livelihoods.

People at the open houses consistently said that agriculture “is seemingly a very low priority for the county and may not be a priority at all,” with the focus instead being on industry and new subdivisions, the report found. Many felt county officials had a poor understanding of the realities of modern farming.

That leads to problems as new homes encroach on farms and complain about their activities, said Verheul.

“All of a sudden the greenhouse is the problem, yet the greenhouse was there first.”

The report called for more education on farming in the form of lessons for kids on where their food comes from and non-farm resident orientation programs to teach new arrivals about farm life.

While farmers strongly supported the preservation of good agricultural land, many opposed restrictions on the right to subdivide their land, the report found.

While he personally felt that the county’s current subdivision rules were too liberal, Groot acknowledged that many farmers see their land as their retirement fund. He liked the report’s suggestion of transferable development credits, which would let developers pay to transfer the right to develop one area to another in order to protect high-quality soil.

The report recommended that the county commit to building a food and farming cluster to draw more value-added business to the region. It also called for a regulatory review to remove barriers to farming and encourage innovation.

The report now goes to the Edmonton Metro board to inform its regional agricultural master plan, and will be used to shape the county’s agricultural support strategy later this year. It can be found in the June 12 county agenda package at bit.ly/2l3Nf8A.

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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.