Surrey potato farmers worry land could be turned into warehouses

Editor’s note: An earlier version referred to the federal ministry, it has been corrected to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. 

The operators of a Surrey potato farm are calling on the federal government to protect their prime agricultural land from redevelopment.

Tyler Heppell with Heppell’s Potatoes says the property on 192 Street near 36 Avenue supplies up to 50-million servings of potatoes, squash, and other veggies every year.

The family has been farming on the property for more than 100 years, through several generations.

But, they don’t own the land. They’ve been leasing it from the federal government, which does. Being a lease, it is not long-term.

“Sadly, this exact parcel of farmland is slated to be sold and developed into industrial buildings,” a petition started by the family reads in part.

A field of greenery with some white flowers at a farm in B.C.

The operators of Heppell’s Potatoes on 192nd Street in Surrey say the federal lease on their 90-hectare farm is about to expire, putting their business at risk. (Dean Recksiedler, CityNews Photo)

Heppell hopes the federal government will either extend the lease or transfer the land to the province so it can be put into the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), to protect it from industrial redevelopment, which is booming in the area.

“This land has actually got a very unique history. In World War II, it had radar buildings on it and then it wasn’t actually put into the ALR back when it was created,” Heppell said.

In addition to a federal push, they are also calling on the City of Surrey to amend its Official Community Plan “to prevent the land from conversion to any use other than farming and forest.”

Despite reaching out to the city, province, and federal government, Heppell says he hasn’t received any firm promises about the farm’s future, though Surrey’s mayor has since vowed his support.

“They haven’t given us too much indication. They’ve said that we can continue leasing the land until they dispose of it. It could be next year, but we know the federal government doesn’t move that quick. So it’s likely in the next three years, three to four years, that’ll be disposed of and be sold to the highest bidder for warehouses.”

Heppell points to other areas, including in the Campbell Heights industrial area near the property, where there has been a surge in warehouses being built in recent years.

He says the property has a lot of advantages as farm land, so simply moving his business to another spot would be a loss.

“The reason being is because it’s so sandy so you know we’re always two to four weeks ahead of planting potatoes and carrots and cabbage than any other farmers,” Heppell explained.

He adds because of those conditions, they are also able to harvest later in the season, when other farmers face muddy crops.

“So just the biggest takeaway is how valuable this land is and how important it is for food security in British Columbia and western Canada,” he said.

City of Surrey will bid on land should feds decide to sell: mayor

The City of Surrey has thrown its support behind the family, with statements from Mayor Doug McCallum as well as City Councillor Linda Annis appealing to the federal ministry to step in.

McCallum says in a statement that the city will bid on the property, should the federal government make it available.

“The fertile land in question at 192nd Street and 36th Avenue is a vital piece of farmland that should remain untouched. If the federal government were to make this property available to the City of Surrey, I would ensure an offer would be made. If successful, I would pledge that the property would remain as farmland so it can produce harvest after harvest for generations to come,” McCallum said Tuesday.

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“Surrey is fortunate as a big city that still has farmland and we should be holding onto that capacity to grow our own food,” Annis said.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Food says it is the responsibility of the local government.

“Since the area referenced is outside of the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), the legislated authority for land use decisions on that land – including any development on it – is the responsibility of the local government,” a statement from the ministry reads in part.

“For a new piece of land to be included it in the ALR, the local government must submit an application directly to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC). The ALC then reviews the application and renders a decision on whether to include the parcel in the ALR,” it said, adding the government does not interfere in the independent decision making process of the ALR.

The political fight appears to be resonating with other farmers, many of whom have signed the petition, which as of Tuesday morning had reached more than 26,000 signatures.

“We’re farmers, we’re not very political by nature. Also this is the first time going through it. So we’re trying to figure it out as we go along. But we’re doing our best job to try to preserve this farmland not for us, but for our future generations,” Heppell said.

With files from Martin MacMahon and Azzaya Khan

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