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Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
Elected as a Member of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly for the Constituency of Saanich South on May 12, 2009. New Democratic Opposition Critic for the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. Raised on Quadra Island and has an undergraduate degree from the University of British Columbia. Extensive track record as a community leader, advocate and environmental activist.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Panama Flats

Should the “right to farm” outweigh the obligation to farm responsibly?

In Saanich, farming is in the headlines again. The new owners of Panama Flats are in the middle of a controversial fight that involves farming, fill dumping, and ecological risk. Emotions are running high between community members, the Municipality of Saanich and the potential farmers/developers.

How do we as residents make heads or tails out of the information and misinformation coming our way? The best way to do that is to be well informed about what we potentially have to lose.

The new “farm plan” for Panama Flats includes building a berm that – if allowed – will ring the edge of the entire property. The ‘plan’ is to isolate the flats entirely from winter flooding in order to utilize the land for perennial crops, which in my opinion, are unsuited to land that floods every year.

Panama Flats is made up of a soil class called “organic soil”. We are most familiar with them being referred to as “peat soils”. This is in contrast to the mineral soils that are most common on our Island. Our peat lands are very precious and unique. When we look at their history we can understand why. These sensitive and unique soils started their formation just after the glaciers left. Lakes were formed in this area both by glacier melt water and by fingers of the ocean being land locked. . The levels of peat were gradually formed by successions of vegetation continually encroaching on these lakes and being submerged and deprived of oxygen. This is a very slow process and worldwide only constitutes 3% of our landmass.

To responsibly farm in peat soils takes specific management practices. There is a fine balance between destroying the peat system and working responsibly within it. Water plays a key role in this management.

If we look at Panama Flats, we know that over the winter months it lies submerged in water. This water level allows the peat to remain saturated and the structure of the peat bog to remain at a certain level. Previous farming practices of Panama Flats worked within the seasonal patterns of the wet and dry seasons. The Flats were left to submerge during the cold, wet, non-growing season. This allowed a winter habitat for wildlife and migrating birds.

Once the spring came and brought drier conditions, the water was pumped, the wildlife moved on, and suitable crops were planted. Potatoes are a crop that has been traditionally planted in this space. Potatoes are very appropriate for such an agricultural situation. We have lost our potato growing capabilities in Central Saanich for decades due to the threat of the Golden Nematode. In a time when we are thinking of food security, we should not take prime starch growing areas out of production. Potatoes are a crop that stores well over the winter and I think that fits into our long range agricultural planning.

Bringing fill onto an area such as Panama Flats is ecologically and agriculturally irresponsible. The proposed berm would permanently cover the edges of the valued peat soil and threaten its water holding capabilities. The results of this action could cause the peat bog to settle which is of great concern. The extent of the settling would vary but brings with it a new set of worries. There could be an increase in flooding, a need to continually deepen drainage ditches, and the potential to loose the peat layer as it will dry and the mineral soils would begin to make there way up into this unique horizon. Although the traditional farming method of tilling and plowing can cause have some settling results, the winter rejuvenation due to water retention allows for significant peat conservation.

There are many reasons to farm responsibly. There are many reasons to choose different crops for different areas. Blueberries may do well in this location once the topography is drastically changed, but what if they don’t, and what are the impacts of permanently changing the soil and its hydrology? We are left with a scar on a piece of farmland that would be irreparable. The proposal to plant blueberries on Panama Flats may be great on paper…but if you talk to people who have been farming here for years, agrologists who have our soils in their best interest, and community members who value the diversity that this land brings, we will find that the right to farm does not trump the obligation to farm responsibly.

Panama Flats is a unique peat marsh that currently supports a balance between nature’s use of the land and the growing of food-crops. These activities have coexisted in harmony since farmers first arrived here. Undertaking forms of farming that will block nature’s use and fundamentally change the nature of the soil is not a responsible use of provincial ‘right to farm’ legislation.

Lana Popham
Organic Farmer/ Saanich Resident