Can We Solve the Farm Housing Problem?

First Published in Planning West (PIBC), Summer 2022

By Guy Dauncey PIBC (Hon); Rob Buchan Ph.D., FCIP, RPP; Jack Anderson MCIP, RPP; Heather Pritchard; Kent Mullinix Ph.D. August 2022

There’s a global food catastrophe coming our way, and we’re not ready for it. It’s being caused by a disastrous combination of climate-induced deluges, droughts and heat waves; the war in Ukraine; supply-chain disruptions; and food export bans by leaders who are worried about popular insurrections if they can’t feed their people. Meanwhile, farmers’ profit margins are being squeezed by the rising cost of fuel, fertilizer and animal feed.

How should we respond? Food price inflation is running at 8%. A report on food security in Sooke found that nearly 15% of residents have difficulty putting food on the table, and 28% are unable to afford nutritious food. Tellers at the checkouts are reporting customers saying “Anything over $40, put it back on the shelf.”

As a province, BC has a good supply of fertile farmland that is well protected by the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), but many farms grow no food. In the Alberni Regional District, the 2011-2031 Agricultural Plan reported that of the 7,700 hectares in the ALR, 59% (4,500 hectares) was not being farmed at all. The Agricultural Land Commission protects farmland by not allowing the development of more than two homes on a farm, plus temporary dwellings for seasonal workers, but there is no requirement that the occupants engage in farming. In consequence, we import more than half our food. On Vancouver Island we import 95%. It arrives on the ferry.

The average farmer is approaching 60, but most don’t want to leave their homes on the farm, and the ALR rules do not allow subdivision. Many young people want to farm, but they can’t afford to buy a farm, and if they do find farm work they are not legally allowed to live there long-term. On Salt Spring Island, which has a near zero rental vacancy rate, many farm workers sleep in tents or cars. Elsewhere, farmers skirt the rules, hiding trailers and tiny homes and hoping they will not be reported.

Ecological Polyculture

At La Ferme des Quatre-Temps, in Quebec, Jean-Martin Fortier and his twelve workers operate an eight-acre market garden, where they generate gross annual sales of $73,000 per acre and a profit of $29,000 per acre using ecological polyculture. That’s 1.6 workers per acre. 

In France, Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer use similar methods of permacultural, bio-intensive, organic farming at La Ferme du Bec Hellouin, near Rouen, northwest of Paris. The average French farm of 120 hectares employs one person. Perrine and Charles employ 22 people on 17 acres. That’s 1.3 workers per acre. Both these examples show farming that produces a high, eco-friendly yield and creates jobs.

La Ferme du Bec Hellouin

The ALR Land Sits Unused

In Surrey, where 6,000 acres of ALR land sit unused (27% of Surrey’s ALR), research found that if 3,300 hectares that could still be farmed were used for small-scale, human-intensive, direct market production, they could supply 100% of Surrey’s seasonal consumption of 29 crop and animal products, and create 1,500 jobs.[1]

Surrey ALR Lands, 2014

For 49 years, the ALR has done an admirable job of protecting BC’s farmland, but it has not succeeded in its second goal, which is to encourage more farming. Farm workers don’t want to live in poor quality seasonal workers’ accommodation. They want to build a proper livelihood, which requires living on the farm and being able to steward its health year-round, ideally having a share in ownership of the land so that they can put their hearts into it.

A Possible Solution

The authors of this article have come up with a possible solution that will allow farm workers to live year-round on the land, while still protecting BC’s farmland. It requires a slight shift in the Agricultural Land Commission’s rules. Rather than restricting the number of permitted dwellings, our proposal restricts the amount of land that can be developed, enabling more homes to be built within the same footprint. 

The current rule is that on up to 40 hectares, a farm is allowed one residence with a floor area up to 500 m2 (5,381 sq ft), and a secondary residence with a floor area up to 90 m2 (969 sq. ft.). On more than 40 hectares, it’s one residence of the size permitted when it was built, and a secondary residence with a floor area up to 186 m2. (2,000 sq. ft.). In none of these dwellings is the occupant required to farm. 

To put this in perspective, on a five-acre farm the permitted floor area of both residential units, if they were single story, would cover 2.9% of the land. On 40 hectares, they would cover 0.15% of the land. 

For the five acre farm, with its total allowed 6,350 sq. ft. of floor area, our proposed rules would allow five homes each with a floor area of 1,270 sq. ft, or ten small homes each with a floor area of 635 sq. ft.. 

On 40 hectares, if dwellings were permitted on 2% of the land (instead of 0.15%), this would allow 30 homes, each with a floor area of 1,000 sq. ft. In every case, the housing would need to be closely clustered to reduce servicing costs and land-loss.

How Could This Work?

How could this work? First, a farm owner would learn about new ways to increase food production and the overall sustainability of the farm. Then he, she or they would develop a detailed phased Farm Plan for increased food production and accommodation. The Plan would identify where clustered housing could be developed close to existing roads and servicing, and least disruptive of productive farmland. 

A Sustainable Farm Zone Bylaw would be needed to lay out the rules for clustering, housing, affordability, roads, sewage, water, storm drains, and so on. Any necessary bylaw amendments would be sought, initiating a process of community input. The requested housing could be temporary (small homes that could be relocated) or permanent, as long as the permitted housing footprint remains. 

But what’s to stop a farmer from going through the hoops, building new homes and renting them out, using the income to cease farming and become a landlord instead? Without a clear constraint, our solution could cause even less food to be produced. 

One possible answer is a rent charge written into a Section 219 Covenant attached to the land. This would allow  a charge to the owner if the conditions of the Farm Plan, including farming and occupancy, were not met reflecting the Farm Plan. This charge would be payable to the ALC or a similar body, and high enough to remove any incentive to develop the land for housing only. 

On April 18th 2023 the ALR will celebrate its 50th Anniversary. It has been successful in meeting its first goal, which is to protect farmland, but not its second goal, which is to encourage more farming. We invite all rural and agricultural planners to put your thinking caps on and help us come up with a solution that will allow farmworkers to live legally on the land year-round, so that they can get on with growing more food while continuing to protect BC’s all-important farmland.

Guy Dauncey is an author, futurist, and co-chair of the West Coast Climate Action Network.

Dr. Rob Buchan is the City Manager for Prince Rupert, CEO at iPlan Planning and Development Services Ltd., and an Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University. 

Jack Anderson is the President of Greenplan.

Heather Pritchard is Coordinator of the Foodlands Cooperative of BC.

Kent Mullinix is the Director of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

To contact us, please email guydauncey@earthfuture.com


[1] Mullinix, K., Dorward, C., Shutzbank, M., Krishnan, P., Ageson, K., & Fallick, A. (2013). Beyond protection: Delineating the economic and food production potential of underutilized, small-parcel farmland in metropolitan Surrey, British Columbia. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 4(1), 33–50. http://dx.doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2013.041.005

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