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Big houses on farmland is 'much ado about nothing'

Martin van den Hemel   Oct-02-2018

Richmond's Ben Dhiman on a tractor at his family's blueberry farm on Sidaway Road.

Photo by Chung Chow


In the first of a two-part series, The Sentinel examines the housing-on-farmland issue.

Saving farmland for future generations is undeniably a noble endeavour.

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But what’s been drowned out by the public outcry at the flurry of 10,000-square-foot homes recently constructed on farmland, is the plight of the current crop of farmers, according to four Richmond farmers from multi-generational farming families.

It’s these farming families—who are already struggling to make ends meet while doing high-risk, low-pay, labour-intensive work and drawing from a critically shallow pool of labourers—who stand to be “punished” if Richmond’s current farmland housing rules are changed.

And that’s a slap in their collective face, according to Dale Badh, Humraj Kallu, Ben Dhiman and Bill Zylmans.

They urge local residents to see beyond the political rhetoric that claims these “mega-homes” are a clear and present danger to the future of farming in Richmond.

It’s a red herring issue, according to Badh, Kallu and Dhiman, one that’s being weaponized for political purposes.

BIG HOMES NOT NEW

Big homes have been built on local farmland for decades.

When the late Milan Ilich, a prominent Richmond developer lauded for his philanthropy and civic-mindedness, built a palatial 22,000-plus-square-foot mansion on No. 3 Road, there were no protests on the streets or headlines decrying the loss of farmable land on Ilich’s meticulously manicured, 20-plus-acre gated estate.

Large homes have also been built on No. 5 Road, Sidaway Road and No. 6 Road during the 1990s and 2000s.

So what’s different this time around?

Is it the higher-profile locations of these homes, built in some cases across the street from residential areas? Or the proliferation of them? Is it the in-your-face nature of these imposing homes, because they’re now built closer to the road to comply with civic bylaws intended to maximize farmable land out back? Or is it because there’s increased public sensitivity to issues around food production and farmland and environmental conservation?

Badh, a long-time local realtor, said he believes the single biggest difference is that politicians are stirring the pot needlessly.

Rather than rallying the community together to discuss these issues and helping to increase public awareness and mutual understanding, Badh said the community is instead being driven apart, sometimes along cultural lines.

Whatever the reason, many local residents have voiced their outrage. Some have called for council to put a stop to 10,000-plus-square-foot homes and to bring local rules in line with a provincial guideline that’s about half of that.

FARMERS IN NEED

Coun. Alexa Loo is among the majority of council who voted to maintain the current housing rules on farmland.

Asked why she voted this way, despite the vocal opposition, Loo said she chose to listen to those who farm for a living, rather than those who seemed to be speaking more from emotion than knowledge of the issues.

She spoke with members of the Richmond Farmland Owners Association to gain a better understanding of their viewpoints, businesses and the industry.

That’s something Badh said he appreciated from Loo as well as the other members of council who also spoke with him and the farmland association: Bill McNulty, Linda McPhail, Derek Dang, Ken Johnston and Chak Au.

Badh said he’s never been contacted by Coun. Harold Steves or Coun. Carol Day, and said he expected more leadership from them since they sit on council.

“These councillors are elected by the community. It’s their job duty to come up with a solution. But with Carol and Harold, it’s been a confrontation from day one. Are they the right type of people to lead our city?”

While Bill Zylmans isn’t a member of the farmland owners association, he said not enough is being done to help out farmers.

Zylmans—a second-generation farmer whose family has been toiling on local farmland since the 1960s—was busy late last week preparing for the Sunday rain that was in the forecast, when he was reached by The Sentinel for his opinion.

The mega-housing-on-farmland controversy has become an easy-to-latch-onto issue, he said, that’s been heavily politicized and transformed into simplistic, bite-sized portions for the public to consume.

Rather than focus on the size of the homes farmers are building on their own property, Zylmans said the city, province and federal government need to do more to help out farmers, who desperately need improvements to both irrigation and drainage, for starters.

FUTURE IS NOW

Ben Dhiman can’t understand why much of the conversation is about saving farmland for future generations.

As a second-generation farmer in Canada, he and his brother are part of the young generation of farmers, like Humraj Kallu, who is a full-time farmer.

But their efforts to keep farming alive in Richmond don’t seem to be appreciated.

In fact, Dhiman noted that Dale Badh is being demonized in the press and on social media as a “realtor/farmer”.

“I put all my income from the real estate side into the farming business,” Badh said. “They don’t look at that.”

Said Dhiman: “He’s actually kept farming viable in an area where it’s so expensive and very difficult to do business in farming.”

Dhiman and his brother also keep their family business afloat by working second jobs. Dhiman is a longshoreman.

“If you’re trying to set something up for the future farmers, and you don’t know who they are, that’s another recipe for disaster,” Dhiman said. “Why not ask what farmers need to help them today?”

Dhiman, Badh and Kallu were all critical of Coun. Harold Steves, and the way he is portraying the issue to the general public.

“What is Harold protecting? He’s talking about the future farmer when he’s failing to realize what’s at jeopardy now: the current farmer,” Dhiman said.

MUCH NEEDED CAPITAL

Badh said Asian investors who are purchasing farms and constructing large homes on them, are unfairly being portrayed as villains.

“I think they’re innocent victims,” said Badh. “We are taking advantage of them. We tell them to invest…(and they are being told) we want your money, but we don’t want you or your big houses.”

But Badh said all this new development is providing much-needed capital that will benefit the community in many ways.

Aside from the property taxes that result from the property improvements, and the labour and materials that go into construction, these parcels of farmland will now almost assuredly be farmed to qualify for the farming tax exemption. If it’s not, the property owner faces a massive tax bill on the entire property, rather than on just the portion where the home is built.

Asians coming to Richmond should be thanked for the money they bring with them that pays for roadways, hospitals and infrastructure, he said.

LOCAL SUPPORT

If Richmondites really want to ensure the future of local farming, a simple change in their shopping habits will go a long way.

While Badh, Dhiman and Kallu said Richmond produces much more food today than a decade ago, a significant percentage goes to waste.

Locals should turn to their local farms for more of their daily needs. Instead, many spend their money elsewhere.

Big box retailers continue to bring in cheaper fruits and vegetables sourced from the United States and Mexico at prices that local farmers can’t compete with.

“People drive right in, buy their fruits and veggies, and are not supporting those who put their blood, sweat and tears into farming,” Dhiman said.

Kallu said there’s not much profit to be made in strawberries, blueberries and blackberries because of what’s brought in from south of the border.

Bill Zylmans knows this story all too well. This past summer, despite having some of the best strawberries in the Lower Mainland, his sales were remarkably slow in July.

Where was the community support when he could have used it?


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