Over the past four decades, B.C. taxpayers have footed a multi-million dollar bill for BC Hydro to purchase prime Peace Valley farmland in anticipation of building the Site C dam.
In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, BC Hydro owned almost 1,000 hectares of Peace Valley farmland that would be affected by Site C, an area the size of two and a half Stanley Parks.
BC Hydro declined to reveal how much money it has spent buying farmland in the Peace Valley, but one report says the crown corporation shelled out $6.3 million on agricultural land purchases in the valley in the 11-year period from 1970 to 1981.
BC Hydro’s 2012 holdings included 740 hectares of farmland in the Agricultural Land Reserve and 250 hectares of farmland outside the ALR. In 2012, the crown corporation owned more Class 1 to Class 3 farmland within Site C’s “Project Activity Zone” than all the individual farming families combined. BC Hydro has also purchased an unknown number of hectares of farmland outside Site C’s “Project Activity Zone.”
Peace Valley farmers say BC Hydro’s ownership of some of the valley’s best farmland, coupled with a 1957 flood reserve, has discouraged local farmers from growing much more than hay, wheat, canola and forage crops, which require far fewer investments than fruit and vegetable production, even though the valley has among the province’s most fertile soils, capable of growing a wide array of produce.
Ross Peck, a Peace Valley farmer who raises horses and grows wheat and canola on land that will be flooded by Site C, says farmers have been discouraged from spending money on irrigation or equipment that would allow them to diversify agricultural production.
“We’ve been in a holding pattern with our properties, not wanting to put much in the way of investment into them,” says Peck.
As a result, the Joint Review Panel that examined Site C’s impacts concluded that the valley’s contribution to B.C. agriculture was negligible and that only $22 million worth of crops would be lost during the predicted 100-year lifespan of Site C.
When B.C. agrologist Wendy Holm examined agricultural values that would be lost if Site C goes ahead, she calculated that 1,800 hectares of the best farmland on the Site C chopping block could produce enough fruit and vegetables to meet the nutritional needs of one million people a year.
“That’s a conservative estimate,” says Holm, whose work in agricultural economics received a Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal. “We have this breadbasket sitting right there, and it’s closer to Vancouver than [California’s] Central Valley.”
As climate change brings drought to California and other parts of the world, including to the Canadian Prairies, Holm says B.C. will need the 6,500 hectares of Peace Valley farmland that will be destroyed by Site C. An additional 5,900 hectares of valley farmland — more than all the farmland in Richmond — is at risk of being lost to the $8.8 billion dam and its 107-kilometre long reservoir.
“That land, even though it’s not being used now, will be needed in the future,” says Holm. “We could have co-ops of young people up there growing organic fruits and vegetables for British Columbia and the north in a heart beat.”
More than one-third of B.C.’s vegetable imports are from California, including 95 per cent of broccoli imports and 34 percent of lettuce imports. The drought means that British Columbians can soon expect to pay 34 per cent more for fruit and vegetables, according to a VanCity study that says broccoli alone could fetch seven dollars a pound by 2019.
The jump in food prices has already begun; in November Statistics Canada reported that over the past year our fresh fruit prices jumped by thirteen per cent, vegetables by fourteen per cent and meat by five per cent.
Despite the northerly location of the Peace Valley, its farming potential rivals that of the lower Fraser Valley, according to Vancouver soil scientist Eveline Wolterson. The valley contains some of the richest soils in the province and its unusual east-west orientation means that it receives more hours of summer sun than the Fraser Valley, compensating for a shorter growing season. Milder winters than in the Okanagan broaden the range of crops that can overwinter in the Peace.
“It’s counter intuitive,” says Wolterson, describing the Peace Valley’s growing climate as “equal, if not slightly better, than in the lower Fraser.”
Unlike California and other farming regions that are expected to continue to suffer from drought, agricultural production in the Peace Valley will benefit from global warming.
Modeling by University of Victoria scientists shows that climate change will reap a noteworthy increase in the number of frost-free periods and growing days in the Peace. In BC Hydro’s words, “a significant improvement in climatic capability for agriculture is predicted” for the Peace River Valley.
The climate change-induced changes will be so pronounced in the Peace Valley that a BC Hydro technical memo says that Class 2 and Class 3 farmland in the Site C flood and erosion zones would become Class 1 farmland, further enhancing the valley’s agricultural capability.
The valley’s rich soil and ideal growing climate have long given it an international reputation for high crop yields.
Third generation Peace Valley farmer Colin Meek recently won a 2015 yield challenge put on by seed company Dekalb. Meek topped the competition elsewhere in the B.C. Peace region and in Alberta’s Peace region when he grew 58 bushels of canola per acre on a field next to the Peace River. The highest yielding area of that field will be eradicated by Site C floodwaters, along with access to the field. The same field also falls within BC Hydro’s “Stability Impact Zone” and faces potential destruction when the banks of the Peace River crumble as the reservoir fills.
“I came back to work on the family farm from the oil patch because I realized that I’ll never be able to eat oil, drink liquefied natural gas, or breath electricity, but that I can help feed the world and clean the air with the food I grow,” Meek wrote in a December 2015 letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau which discussed the agricultural potential of the Peace Valley and asked Trudeau to stop Site C.