Saanich South MLA Lana Popham promises to grow agriculture as she assumes ministry

A cucumber. A tomato. A loaf of bread.

Those were the items that Saanich South MLA and British Columbia’s new agricultural minister Lana Popham bought from local farmers at the Saanich Sunday Farmers’ Market.

“And I went home and I made a Saanich Sandwich,” she said, with a laugh. “And you know what? It felt great. It just makes me feel very inspired to continue to work and harder than ever.”

Popham’s appearance at the Saanich Sunday Farmers’ Market invites parallels. After years of waiting, the market opened for business little more than three weeks in promising to give local farmers new commercial opportunities and local consumers greater food choice.

After eight years on the opposition benches, Popham, who has had a long personal history in farming, now finds herself in charge of the very ministry that she has shadowed for almost every year since her election in 2008.

“When the premier asked me to be the minister of agriculture, I was almost speechless because it is something that I wanted to do for so long,” she said. “Speechless then turned into immediately being grateful for the opportunity.”

Following last week’s swearing-in ceremony, Popham spent the first few days getting set up for the job, receiving briefings from ministry staff.

As the long-time shadow minister for the agriculture, Popham has the advantage of being familiar with many of the files. But it is one thing to be familiar with the substance of the files, it is another thing to make consequential decisions about them.

“This next week, we will continue with briefings and getting to work on the inititives in our platform, which I am very excited about,” said Popham, who helped draft the NDP’s agricultural platform.

These inititives include among others promises to strengthen the Agricultural Land Reserve against competing demands. “That means modernizing it, it means making sure that it is more defensible,” said Popham. “We need this land. And although, there are pressures around growth on this land, we cannot grow on our agricultural industry, if farmland isn’t being used to produce food and used for raising houses. So I am going to work extremely hard to strengthen the ALR and protect farmland.”

One step along the path towards this goal will ultimately see Popham make a decision around the future of former Saanich mayor Frank Leonard, who currently chairs the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC).

“I haven’t sat down with Agricultural Land Commission yet,” said Popham. “But I am looking forward to having that chat with him. It is interesting that both the minister of agriculture and the chair of the commission are both from Saanich. It is proud moment for Saanich to have a spotlight on food security.”

Popham said she expects to look at this issue this week.

Popham belongs to several members of the provincial cabinet, who are now in charge of the very departments that they had once critiqued when they served in opposition. They include among others Popham’s fellow Saanich MLA Rob Fleming representing Victoria-Swan Lake as minister of education.

Popham acknowledges the theory that critics do not always make the best cabinet members. “But [Premier John Horgan] probably weighed that out with the knowledge of the files [that critics bring],” she said.

Popham said this pattern of critics becoming ministers sends the message that people already familiar with the files will be in charge. “It alleviates some of the learning curve and some of the time that it may take to get up to speed. For myself and my neighbour, [Victoria-Swan Lake] MLA Rob Fleming, we can jump right into.”

Popham and her colleagues assume their posts as members of a minority government that would not exist without the support of three MLAs from the B.C. Greens, including party leader and local MLA Andrew Weaver, representing Oak-Bay Gordon Head. Combing the New Democrats and Greens, the current cabinet can work with a majority of exactly one vote.

This precariousness raises the obvious question: what role did it play in the selection of cabinet ministers?

Popham said she is not sure whether it specifically influenced cabinet decisions. “I know that, that is a factor with every decision that is going to be made,” she said. “We are committed to working with everybody.”

Popham said the cabinet wants to get to work right away given the political realities as they exist. “But also what played into more, and this is my personal opinion, we have wasted two months waiting for government to get to work. There issues that are very pressing, so we may not have had the luxury of getting up speed. We have the reality of getting up to speed in a week.”

In light of these time pressures, Sunday’s trip to the farmer’s market served as a nice break. “The first three days were very overwhelming,” said Popham. “I had such a sense of gratitude for the opportunity, but also a sense of being overwhelmed by the responsibility.”

This said, Popham also used the opportunity to get a feel for the community. “I have a very good sense that we will be working together to make farming better in B.C.”

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