Province blamed for farmland loss in Alta.

qProvince blamed for farmland loss in Alta.

EDMONTON — The discussion about farmland fragmentation by municipalities is a moot point because the provincial government controls most major land decisions, says a county councillor.

Richard Harpe of Grande Prairie County said the county has more than 5,000 oil and gas wells, plus batteries, gas plants and the roads that lead to the industrial sites.

The loss of farmland is staggering, he added.

“We have no say in any of it,” said Harpe, who estimated each well uses seven acres of farmland and the batteries and gas plant sites use even more.

“It’s all happening on another level of government.”

Farmland will continue to be sold for urban development, roads and oil and gas development until a unified voice forms to speak about the issue, he said during an Alberta Land Institute conference.

He said the government will hire consultants when it wants to build a bigger highway through a municipality, but the consultants don’t consult with the municipality. Instead, they just present the project.

“They hire consultants who do the planning in isolation,” he said.

“The loss of farmland has more to do with who has control.”

The worry about the loss of farmland motivated British Columbia to establish the Agricultural Land Reserve almost 40 years ago, said Richard Bullock, chair of B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission.

He said there was a need to preserve valuable farmland, considering that only 1.1 percent of B.C.’s farmland is considered prime farmland and only five to six percent is considered suitable for agriculture.

“You have more agriculture in the city of Edmonton than the whole Okanagan Valley. We don’t have any,” said Bullock. “If it wasn’t for the ALR, we wouldn’t see any agriculture industry in the Lower Mainland or the Okanagan.”

He said Saskatchewan and Alberta have more farmland, but it’s important not to squander it, especially along the busy Highway 2 corridor between Calgary and Edmonton.

“You’re considerably different here, but by God, ag is important. You cannot be in agriculture unless you have land, and we have absolutely none to waste.”

Bullock said it wouldn’t be hard to establish an ALR in Alberta, but it would take considerable political will. There was a huge outcry when the land reserve was established in B.C. but looking back, it was necessary.

He said the ALR forces industry, governments and city planners to consider other alternatives before approaching the commission to use ALR land for non-agricultural uses.

The commission receives 500 to 700 applications a year for subdivisions, inclusions or exclusions of land in the ALR.

“Rarely do we make a decision that pleases everyone. In my time we haven’t made one.”

Harvey Buckley of Action for Agriculture said the fragmentation and conversion of Alberta farmland is shocking. He said Alberta lost 95 quarters of land per year to development between 1996 and 2009, and the losses continue.

“We are in a precarious situation with our land that very few Albertans understand,” he said.

“We need to avoid an economy of plunder. If we don’t look after our landscapes, who will?”

Buckley said there is no single solution to saving farmland, but he believes one of the biggest roadblocks is the capital gains tax on intergenerational transfer of land.

“The ability to pass land from one generation to the next is restricted by our tax system,” he said.

Buckley also suggested using conservation easements, conservation offsets and conservation directives.

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