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B.C. government looking at satellite technology to monitor farms for breaking ALR rules

B.C.'s Agriculture Land Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture are turning to controversial new technology to crack down on so-called mega mansions from cropping up on soil meant to grow food. Kristen Robinson reports.

UPDATE: B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham says the ministry will “pull back” on the Agricultural Land Commission using satellite imaging, as there is “more work to be done before we consider moving forward on such a project, including hearing from people with concerns.”

The B.C. government wants to hire a U.S.-based space technology company to see if satellites can assist with monitoring and regulatory oversight of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).

In a notice of intent (NOI) on BC Bid, the Ministry of Agriculture outlines its plan to contract with MDA Systems Ltd. to provide radar satellite-based change detection services in a joint pilot project with the provincial Agricultural Land Commission (ALC).

MDA owns and operates the Radarsat-2 satellite, which is capable of scanning the earth at all times of the day or night. Its parent company Maxar owns and operates the Worldview constellation of optical satellites.

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The NOI notes that the global company, which has offices in Vancouver and Richmond, “has the unique ability to provide the required radar and optical satellite imagery … for the nature of the change being investigated.”

READ MORE: Farm families call on province to repeal law restricting homes on farm land

The pilot would covertly collect repeat imagery on anthropogenic changes within three overlapping areas of ALR in southern B.C., focusing on land fill and infrastructure like buildings, roads, and commercial vehicle parking.

Farmers like Bill Zylmans, who operates W & A Farms in Richmond, think the move is stepping over the line.

“I definitely would not be in favour of this, and I take resistance to it hugely,” Zylmans told Global News.

B.C. NDP government limits size of monster homes on ALR
B.C. NDP government limits size of monster homes on ALR

Zylmans’ family business is already subject to provincial regulations and city bylaws, and he says many municipalities keep aerial shots of all farms in their jurisdiction.

“We don’t need more surveillance of any kind, shape or form on our farms,” said Zylmans.

“The ALC has got their own bylaw enforcement team. What more does the government, the world, need to know about my farm that isn’t already known?”

In a statement, the Ministry of Agriculture told Global News the goal is “to inform ALC compliance and enforcement activities in the ALR.”

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READ MORE: Vancouver Island farmers complain about changes to Agricultural Land Reserve

News of the pilot project comes as a group of farmers pushes for the province to repeal Bill 52. The legislation restricts agricultural land owners from having secondary non-farm use homes for their immediate family members, and limits the size of residences to 12,000 square feet.

The government is not revealing exactly where the Radarsat-2 and optical satellites will roam, because it could potentially compromise the value of the pilot.

“Due to the limited nature of the area being imaged, it is possible that the land owners may behave differently if they are aware they are being monitored and this may invalidate the intent of this pilot project in evaluating change detection technologies and protocols,” the NOI reads.

Metro Vancouver farmers and opposition BC Liberals rally against ALR laws
Metro Vancouver farmers and opposition BC Liberals rally against ALR laws

That secrecy is exactly why farmers are concerned.

“It’s an invasion of privacy,” said Dave Sidhu of the BC Farmland Owners Association.

“I think it is definitely going too far. Farmers are people, they’re hard workers, they have families and they contribute to their communities.”

READ MORE: A Vancouver Island farm built a brewery to follow ALR rules. They’re still being forced to close

Delta South Liberal MLA Ian Paton, who also serves as the official opposition co-critic for agriculture, has 30 years of experience owning and operating a dairy farm and farm auction business.

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He believes the ALC has become “activist oriented,” and accuses the independent administrative tribunal of spying on farmers.

“Farmers are horrified,” Paton said.

“Who knows what [the NDP government is] trying to prove, but this is a complete violation of people’s fundamental rights as private property owners in B.C.”

READ MORE: Farm families call on province to repeal law restricting homes on farm land

The ministry said if the project proceeds as a pilot, it would only use orbiting radar-based and optical satellites, not drones.

The technology would capture data for approximately 60 to 90 days between now and February 2020, and “only a set area comprising a very small percentage of the ALR would be imaged via satellite.”

No contract has been signed, but the cost is not expected to exceed $70,000.

“I think we’ve got better ways of using tax dollars to look after agriculture,” Zylmans said.