1 Working Lands | West Coast Environmental Law


Working Lands

Agriculture in British Columbia

On less than five percent of the land base in British Columbia the agricultural community produces the most blueberries, cranberries and raspberries of any province in the country. BC’s farmers also ranked second or third in the nation for the production of greenhouse tomatoes, dairy products, hens and chickens, ginseng, grapes, apples, sweet cherries, flowers, eggs, sweet peppers and mushrooms. In 2004, BC cultivation of sweet cherries, greenhouse peppers, raspberries and blueberries accounted for more than fifty percent of Canadian marketed production.

And these remarkable achievements were obtained on highly concentrated farming and urban land use patterns. Over 82 percent of British Columbians live in urban areas and 80 percent of those urbanites live in an area of less than three percent of BC where agriculture generates 78 percent of the provincial gross farm receipts (Okanagan Valley, Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island). Yet it is precisely in these critical areas that over 37,000 hectares have been removed from agricultural land uses in the past 30 years. The competition for this non-renewable resource – the valleys with the most productive agricultural soils and where people want to live – gives local governments with their land use planning and development powers a decisive role in maintaining the productivity of BC’s working landscape.

Working lands (land used for agriculture, forestry or other resource industries), and particularly the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), are the backbone of many rural and near-urban economies. The industries that rely on working lands require a secure land base to justify capital investments and ensure sufficient returns on these investments, not a land base that is a reserve for future urban or suburban development subject to real estate speculation. Working lands are also an integral part of the green infrastructure in any region, those ecological processes, both natural and engineered, that provide economic and environmental benefits in developed areas.

But the benefits of BC agriculture and agricultural land are not limited to economic and environmental factors. From the grain fields of the Peace River Valley to the vineyards and fruit trees of the Okanagan, the agricultural landscape is an integral part of the regional identities across the province. The primary and secondary (value-added) agricultural industry employs 297,000 people. An assured land base for agriculture also contributes to BC’s food security. The commodities produced in BC provide diverse choices and meet the equivalent of 50 percent of provincial food needs. This means more self-sufficiency and less reliance on the stability of resources, climate, transportation and politics elsewhere.

Agricultural Land Reserve

This vibrant and important industry, thriving in the most urban areas of BC, is made possible by the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR). The envy of most jurisdictions in North America, the ALR is a provincial land use designation or zone that applies to good farmland. The purpose of the ALR is to ensure that land within the ALR is used for farm purposes or uses that compliment farming operations, such as food processing or agritourism. Established in 1973, the ALR has successfully halted the conversion of, on average, 6000 hectares of agricultural land per year into residential, commercial and industrial uses – a transformation that is largely irreversible.

Between 1971 and 2001 the amount of urban land occupying dependable agricultural land in Canada more than doubled (from 690,000 to 1,430,000 hectares), amounting to 46 percent of urban land being situated on dependable agricultural land. Thanks to the ALR, from 1974 to 2003 BC experienced no net loss of farmland because the amount of land included and excluded from the ALR was roughly the same.

The ALR comprises less than five percent of the land base of BC, some 4.7 million hectares of which 2.6 million hectares is farmed. Farming activities in the ALR generate over $2.3 billion in gross annual farm gate receipts (up from $1.8 billion in 1996) and pay $405 million in wages (up from $340 million in 1996). It also generates consumer sales of $22.7 billion in the food processing, food wholesaling, food retailing and food service sectors that has a $2.11 billion impact on BC’s gross domestic product.

As a provincial land use designation, any changes in use or proposed development on land in the ALR must be approved by the Agricultural Land Commission or, in some cases, by a local government if the local government has entered into a delegation agreement with the Commission. While local governments may regulate non-farming land use activities on land within the ALR, that regulation cannot affect normal farming practices. Please see the Overview for more detailed information about land use processes in the ALR and a summary of activities that local governments may regulate in the ALR.

The ALR also acts as an important urban containment boundary in the areas of the province where human settlement, ecologically sensitive area and the agricultural sector compete most intensely for land. The ALR directs new development into already-serviced areas and away from the working landscape.

Local governments have an important role to play in sustaining working lands in the ALR by ensuring that uses within agriculture and resources zones support an economy based on a working landscape, and that these lands are buffered from more urban uses. Agricultural planning, large lot zoning, “edge” planning, buffer specifications, and explicit regulations on non-farm activities for processing, sales and other uses help to maintain the viability of farming and resource industries.

This is particularly true for the regulation of agritourism – destination uses of ALR land associated with farming activities. Agritourism allows farmers to create value-added ventures on ALR land. The key is to ensure that new agritourism activities maintain agricultural values and do not limit the ability of ALR to produce commodities in the future.

Examples of Strategies that Strengthen the ALR Include:

For More Information




[1] Ministry of Agriculture and Lands, Agricultural Statistics, BC’s Top 25 Agricultural Commodities and National Ranking 2003 http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/stats/1d.htm; Ministry of Agriculture and Land, Fast Stats: Agriculture and Food 2005 http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/stats/faststats/brochure2005.pdf

[2] Barry Smith, Planning for Agriculture Agricultural Land Commission, 1998 http://www.alc.gov.bc.ca/publications/planning/

[3] Agricultural Land Commission, Area Included/Excluded from the ALR by Regional District
1974 to December 31, 2003 http://www.alc.gov.bc.ca/alr/stats/A5_incl-excl_RDallyears.htm

[4] The green infrastructure includes:

  • ditches, rivers, creeks, streams and wetlands that retain and carry stormwater, improve water quality, and provide habitat;
  • parks and greenways that link habitat and provide recreation opportunities;
  • working lands such as agricultural or forested areas;
  • aquifers and watersheds that provide drinking water;
  • engineered wetlands and stormwater detention ponds that retain stormwater and improve infiltration; and
  • trees, rooftop gardens and community gardens that clean air and cool urban areas in the summer.

[5] Ministry of Agriculture and Land, Fast Stats: Agriculture and Food 2005 http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/stats/faststats/brochure2005.pdf

[6] Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Guide for Bylaw Development in Farming Areas (no date).

[7] Statistics Canada, Rural and Small Town Canada Analysis Bulletin Vol. 6 No. 1 (January 2005) http://www.statcan.ca/english/freepub/21-006-XIE/21-006-XIE2005001.pdf

[8] Agricultural Land Commission, Table of Area Included/Excluded from the ALR by Year 1974 to December 31, 2003 http://www.alc.gov.bc.ca/alr/stats/A1_incl-excl_allyears_d.htm

[9] Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Census of Agriculture 2001 and Historical Comparisons – BC Summary May 2002 http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/stats/2001census.pdf

[10] Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, Province of British Columbia : Agriculture in Brief – 1996-2001 http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/resmgmt/sf/agbriefs/BC.pdf

[11] Ministry of Agriculture and Land, Fast Stats: Agriculture and Food 2005 http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/stats/faststats/brochure2005.pdf