The search for a long-term operator of the Sandown lands in North Saanich could conclude later this month with a lease agreement between the municipality and Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture (SCRA).
“It’s incredibly exciting and this is exactly what we need for agriculture right now, for climate change, for our insecure food supply system, for healing, for igniting curiosity, for COVID-19, for having outdoor places for us to come together in safe ways and still connect,” said Jennifer Rashleigh of SCRA.
North Saanich had chosen SCRA, along with Gobind Farms, to submit final proposals for the long-term operation of the lands, the site of a former horse race track, following a long selection process that had officially started in the fall of 2019 when six interested parties submitted their proposals for the municipally owned land. Other options before council included selling the lot or keeping it for the time being.
Council eventually chose SCRA as the preferred option in May following a narrow vote with opposition from Couns. Jack McClintock, Brett Smyth and Murray Weisenberger, while responding to last-minute interest from Tseycum First Nation.
Following additional discussions, councillors last month tasked staff to draft a lease agreement with SCRA with Couns. Heather Gartshore, Patricia Pearson, and Celia Stock joining Mayor Geoff Orr in support. Council will consider its details at its regular meeting Sept. 14.
Perhaps central to SCRA’s successful pitch is the idea of turning the Sandown lands into an “agricultural-focused community centre” as Rashleigh called it.
“This is a centre for teaching and learning and community engagement,” she said.
SCRA’s proposal parcels the land into a mix of commercial, educational and scientific uses centred on the idea of regenerative agriculture which SCRA describes as farming and grazing practices that reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity.
“This is going to be a living laboratory for that,” she said.
Key partners in the centre include local agro-business Fickle Fig, which will use the site as a grazing area for its animals; Haliburton Community Organic Farm; the University of Victoria through its ecological restoration program; and Kwantlen’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems, said Rasleigh.
Using the land, these and other partners will see the SCRA showcase what she calls the “next generation of evolving farming practices” in Canada, offering “incubator plots” as well agricultural education and programs. “It’s tough being a farmer,” she said. “The number of farmers under 35 is plummeting. There is a growing local food movement and there is a real hunger for a robust local food economy. We are going to have that here.”
Support for SCRA around the council table and for that matter the community is not unanimous. Questions around the best use for the lands have swirled around the municipality for years and current critics of SCRA have scrutinized its financial plans, a theme likely to re-emerge later this month when staff present the lease to council for review. It currently calls for a 10-year term with North Saanich offering subsidies for the first three years.
Orr acknowledged that support for the group is not unanimous, adding that concerns about financing would exist “regardless” of who is undertaking this.
Orr said supporters like himself are also concerned about the district’s financial investment, but there are “a little more inclined to be in favour of the community aspect” of the proposal.
Rashleigh acknowledged the financial concerns expressed by the likes of Coun. Brett Smyth, perhaps the most vocal scrutineer of the group’s finances.
“Certainly, the plan is that this is not going to be a permanently subsidized farm,” she said.
Orr said North Saanich’s overall intent behind the search for a long-term operator has been to return the site to agricultural use, and SCRA’s proposal “to a large extent is moving in the right direction” with some details still to be worked out.
SCRA has certainly developed a significant number of partnerships, he said. “That gives us a foothold and a base to work from. It’s a positive step forward.”
Orr also predicted that a “lot of eyes” will be looking at SCRA to see if it is successful.
Equally uncertain is what, if any role, Tseycum First Nation will play on the land.
“We don’t want to ignore that dialogue,” said Orr.
Rashleigh wants to keep lines of communication open, but cannot wait to get going.
“People call it Utopian, but I have done this on a small scale in Vancouver for the last 12 years and I know what it looks like in practice,” she said. “It is just going to be lovely.”‘It only furthers the perception that it is going to fail.”
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.