Surrey farmers petition to protect ‘vital’ farmland from sale by federal government

Click to play video: 'Campaign underway to protect threatened Surrey farmland'
Campaign underway to protect threatened Surrey farmland
A campaign is underway to protect some extremely productive Surrey farmland from development. It's one of the greatest contributors to our province's food security and yet - as Aaron McArthur shows us - the city is looking to turn it into a business park. – Jun 20, 2022

A group of farmers in Surrey, B.C., have launched a petition to protect the land they farm, billed as one of the most productive in Canada, from being sold and converted into industrial property.

Tyler Heppell’s family has been farming the 220-acre property in the Campbell Heights neighbourhood for 50 years, leasing it from the federal government.

Over generations, the Heppells have used regenerative agricultural practices to increase yields. He now estimates it produces 20 tonnes of potatoes per acre, and up to 150,000 vegetable servings per day.

“My grandpa found it in the 1970s,” Heppell told Global News. “They were trying to farm it and grow hay and corn off of it, but the crop would die right away because there was no way to irrigate.

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“Over the years, they were able to add nutrition to the soil and irrigate it, and now it’s one of the most productive farmlands in B.C., if not in all of Canada.”

Managed by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, however, the precious parcel of productive land was never included in British Columbia’s protected Agricultural Land Reserve.

An emailed statement from the federal department said it is in the process of divesting the property through Public Services and Procurement Canada.

The online campaign, launched by Tristin Bouwman, who manages crops for Heppell’s Potato Corp., calls on the Ottawa to keep the property — 300 acres in all — and lease it long-term to a local farmer, and apply to B.C.’s Agricultural Land Commission to include it in the protected reserve.

The petition, which had close to 24,000 signatures as of Monday, also urges the City of Surrey to amend its community plan to prevent the land from any conversion that isn’t farming or forest preservation.

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Bouwman said the plot of land is “phenomenal,” with such exceptional drainage that planting begins in February and March.

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Harvesting usually begins in May, on the long weekend, when many other farmers are just beginning to sow their seeds.

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“There are no other pieces of land that you can get into reliably so early on in the year, where you don’t have to worry about the crop rotting in the ground or the field flooding,” he explained.

“We’re expecting lands like this, that are resilient to extreme weather events, are going to play an increasingly important role in food security.”

Bouwman estimated up to half of the local potatoes available in B.C. grocery stores by the May long weekend come from Heppell’s Potato Corp. The land produces more than 50 million servings of parsnips, potatoes, cabbage and carrots every year, he said.

By email, the City of Surrey’s planning and development department said it is not aware of any plans the land owner may have to add it to the Agricultural Land Reserve. Roughly 9,000 hectares of land in Surrey fall under that protection, it said.

“The City’s Campbell Height Local Area Plan, which was established in the early 2000s, identified these lands as potential opportunities for a business park in an effort to address the increasing demand and limited supply of employment lands in the region,” it wrote.

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 The department said food security is an “important consideration” and the municipality’s Agriculture, Environment and Investment Advisory Committee has undertaken various initiatives to support food production.

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In an interview, Mike Bose, president of the Surrey Farmers’ Institute, described the land farmed by the Heppells as “vital to food security.”

“This is, without question, the earliest, best most valuable piece of productive land in Canada,” he said.

“We can go find industrial land. We can make industrial land elsewhere. We cannot recreate this. It’s a microclimate, it’s a type of soil drainage, ample irrigation — it can’t be replaced.”

Bose and Heppell said they’re optimistic that politicians at all levels of government have heard their plea and a solution will be reached.

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“We can’t rely on everybody else to feed us,” Bose explained. “That time has also come and gone … We need true leadership, protect this land, protect the productive quality that we have here.”

In a Tuesday news release, Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum acknowledged the “vital piece” of fertile farmland at 192nd Street and 36th Avenue, and said it “should remain untouched.”

If Ottawa makes the property available to the municipality, he added, he would ensure an offer would be made. If accepted, Surrey would ensure it remains as farmland.

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