With the NDP and Greens assuming power this week in Victoria, BC brewers and hop farmers are “cautiously optimistic” that changes are coming to an ill-conceived provincial policy that makes it all but impossible to operate a farm-based brewery.
In case you’re not familiar with the story so far, the government is threatening to shut down Persephone Brewing Company on the Sunshine Coast if it doesn’t comply with a policy requiring it to grow at least 50 per cent of its fermentable grain on site. Unfortunately, the brewery, which sits on 11 acres of Agricultural Land Reserve farmland, would need hundreds upon hundreds of acres of land to grow the barley required to make its beer.
Basically, the policy, enacted last year by the previous BC Liberal government, was created to protect farmland from being converted to non-farm uses. However, while wineries and cideries are only required to source half their fermentables from anywhere in BC (in this case, grapes and apples, respectively), for some reason that no one can explain, breweries have to grow half their grains literally on site (or immediately nearby).
Brian Smith is one of the owners of Persephone Brewing and he says he’s cautiously optimistic the policy will be changed based on conversations he’s had with members of the NDP.
“Several NDP candidates expressed support for our position [prior to the May provincial election],” says Smith. In particular, Powell River-Sunshine Coast MLA Nicholas Simons publicly supported Persephone’s position, going so far as to speak in favour of changing the policy in the legislature.
I emailed Simons, and while he wouldn’t say definitively if and when a change to the policy could be expected, he did double-down on his support for Persephone.
“The policy as it stands doesn’t pass the fairness test,” Simons told me. “Preferential treatment for one industry over another is clearly unfair. Breweries and their product shouldn’t be unfairly treated compared to wineries, for example.”
That said, he added, “some in-depth conversations will have to happen to see what would be fair to all BC businesses while protecting agricultural land.”
Smith says he also spoke with Saanich South NDP MLA Lana Popham, whom he says fully supports Persephone’s position. This past Tuesday, Popham was named Minister of Agriculture in the new NDP/Green provincial cabinet, so she’ll be the one responsible for making any changes to the policy.
“She expressed very clearly that she fully supported us and saw no reason why the policy shouldn’t be updated,” according to Smith. “She seemed very genuine. I think her support goes beyond just scoring political points.”
I emailed and phoned Popham after her appointment was announced on Tuesday, but didn’t hear back by press deadline.
Having visited Persephone myself, it’s a little bizarre it’s not considered a farm. I get that it doesn’t conform to the ridiculous, poorly thought-out policy the previous government pushed through, but Persephone might be the farmiest farm I’ve ever seen. They even have a red barn. It’s got bucolic charm coming out the wazoo.
But aesthetics aside, Persephone operates as a farm, sells an agricultural product and is increasing the amount of productive farmland in the province, which is exactly what the ALR was created to do in the first place.
When Persephone first purchased the farm, more than half the land was wooded and not suitable for agricultural production. Persephone has since cleared the property, increasing its arable farmland with eight of the 11 acres currently growing crops.
There’s currently six acres of hops growing on the farm, one acre of apple trees (with a second acre soon to be planted), one acre of food crops and two greenhouses (the produce is used by the onsite food truck and sold at local farmers’ markets). Wastewater from the brewery is used to irrigate crops. Spent grains are used as compost, helping to build up the topsoil. The non-profit Sunshine Coast Association for Community Living owns five per cent of Persephone and tends a modest chicken run, helping to employ people with developmental disabilities.
In fact, only two per cent of the farm’s landbase is used for brewing (the remaining 13 per cent is for roads and processing areas).
Call me crazy, but that totally sounds like a farm.
“We’re adding agricultural value to our land,” says Smith. “From Day 1, we’ve adhered to the winery regulations and are using more than 60 per cent BC grain. We’re putting somewhere in the low millions of dollars per year into the economy. I think that matters.”
Smith isn’t the only one anxiously awaiting changes to the policy.
Farhad Ebrahimi owns an 8.8-acre farm on Hatzic Lake near Mission that’s currently non-productive. He’d like to plant hops on the land and start brewing beer, but he can’t do that until the policy changes. In the meantime, his fields remain fallow.
“We would like to see the policy relaxed,” he said. “Having non-productive farmland does not serve anybody. The land is too expensive now and it is not viable to operate solely traditional models.”
Even if the new government can’t get around to changing the policy in the upcoming fall session of the legislature, the ALC should at the very least grant an exemption to Persephone in the meantime (as was recently granted to Sorrento’s Crannog Ales).
Without a change in the policy, or an exemption, Persephone will be forced to close its doors by December 2018.