Food security concerns raised over fertile Surrey farmland vulnerable to industrial development

·3 min read
Ron Heppell pulls potatoes out of the ground on Campbell Heights farmland in Surrey, B.C. on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Ron Heppell pulls potatoes out of the ground on Campbell Heights farmland in Surrey, B.C. on Tuesday, June 7, 2022. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

There's a piece of land in Surrey that some call the most fertile farmland in British Columbia, if not Western Canada — but there's a good chance it could wind up being sold to developers.

The Campbell Heights property, which sits at 192nd Street near 36th Avenue, is owned by the federal government and leased to farmers.  It's not part of B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve, though many say that's a historical oversight.

"Bar none, it's the best. It produces the earliest crops every year, first potatoes, first carrots, first cabbage. It's just very unique," said Wes Heppell.

Heppell and his family, spanning three generations, have grown crops on this particular farm since the 1970s. They say it produces between 30 and 50 million servings of fresh vegetables each year —  enough for one serving on every Metro Vancouverite's plate for two to three weeks.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

They hope the 220-acre parcel can be moved into the ALR or swapped with other, less fertile pieces.

"We need to protect our food supply."

Reducing reliance on California and Mexico

The acreage is surrounded by warehouses — erected over the years as farmland in the area sold for hundreds of millions — development  that is part of the City of Surrey's Official Community Plan (OCP).

Murray Driediger with B.C. Fresh, the largest marketer of field and storage crops, knows and appreciates the pressure for more industrial land but says losing this amount of crop production would be detrimental to the province's own food security, given it helps displace high-cost imports from the U.S. each year.

He points to climate change threatening crops and the supply chain disruptions of the last two years.

"It's a wake-up call for all of us," said Driediger. "When the supply chain [is] broken, countries tend to pull their exports in to take care of themselves.  If we don't take care of farmland like this, nobody else is going to help us."

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

'Unique microclimate ... resilient to climate change'

For the months of May, June and July, at least 25 per cent of B.C.'s potatoes, carrots, cabbage and squash come from this one parcel alone.

While some may scoff at the claim that the land is so fertile it must be protected, even though it's not in the ALR — the explanation, according to stakeholders, is simple.

The land is exceptionally sandy and sits on a hill which means it's more resilient to flooding.  It's planted and harvested when other fields across the province are too wet.  It also has a warm microclimate which is responsible for the production of some of the earliest crops in Western Canada.

All of this allows the farmers to practise regenerative agriculture, a key recommendation in climate change resiliency.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Tom Baumann, an associate professor of agriculture at the University of the Fraser Valley, says conflicts between agriculture, roadways and residential and industrial uses are nothing new to the area because the space is already gone.

"It's up to all of us and our leadership to consider the benefits of each sector. Are we willing to permanently give up some of the best land in Canada for agriculture? Are we willing to stop harvesting local foods and rely on imports?" 

While the land is not currently listed for sale, given the site's approval for industrial use as part of Surrey's development plan, it's likely only a matter of time.

CBC has asked the federal government what it has in mind for the future of the property but had not heard back by the time of publication.

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