COLUMN: Farms don’t get a pass on environmental stewardship

Behold the farmer. The farmer can do no wrong, as he feeds the hungry masses.

COLUMN: Farms don’t get a pass on environmental stewardship

Behold the farmer.

The farmer can do no wrong, as he feeds the hungry masses.

A bit over-stated? Indeed, but that seems to be the view of some people, who leap to defend farming regardless of what criticism it is attracting.

The latest example is the 20-year saga of a fouled creek in Abbotsford – a tale that leads to the doors of a barn, from which has flowed manure and dumped milk.

Last year, residents in the McMillan area told The News about nasty odours, brown sludge and milky discolouration of the small waterway.

News reporter Tyler Olsen wrote a story about it back in September. This month he received replies on Freedom of Information requests he made to the provincial ministries of agriculture and environment.

Turns out complaints about the smelly stream have been accumulating since 1996.

Neither ministry seemed particularly inspired to get at the root of the problem. It did eventually become clear that the source of the pollution was manure run-off from a McMillan Road dairy farm and the practice of dumping milk that could not be placed on the market.

The city tried to take action, levying fines against the farm owner. Those went unpaid.

Amongst all the emails and other documentation Olsen received were a couple of “gotchas.”

In an email dated Sept. 17, the day after our story on the creek was published, the region’s environment manager wrote in an email to colleagues in his and the agriculture ministries that “there were a few developments [Redacted] today because of the media article.”

In other communication, a city staffer noted the environment ministry’s response to the situation as “a bit muted.”

That’s government-speak for diddly-squat.

So, it’s clearly a pollution problem, albeit one that the owner, Ms. Kathy Cooper, whose family has lived and worked on the farm for 90 years, at least initially did not know was a problem at all.

Only recently was she notified that a drain fed milk into storm culverts, rather than the sewer system.

The runoff problems have been known for years, though, and the emails suggest a reluctance to undertake upgrades to stop those problem from recurring.

What took me by surprise was the unquestioning defence quickly thrown out on social media by some agriculture supporters who felt the authorities should be leaving the farm alone, because, well, it’s a farm.

Some also opined that the residents who don’t like the smell shouldn’t have moved there, which is the same shallow slapdown applied to complaints about noise pollution from blasting blueberry cannons.

I grew up on a farm, and I don’t buy either of those dismissive, myopic views.

In this case, massive development in the McMillan neighbourhood – in the midst of which the Cooper farm has become a remarkable anomaly – has very likely changed drainage patterns and courses. Of course, that’s not the farm’s fault, but it doesn’t mean that remedial measures aren’t necessary to deal with polluting manure runoff.

And while the farm operators didn’t know that the storm drain where they dumped milk was leading to a waterway rather than a sewer treatment plant, it in no way makes the practice acceptable.

It’s not about protecting farms. It’s about protecting the environment, and farmers are just as responsible in that regard as any other business, or individual.

It’s also about two government ministries that somehow, through bureaucratic ball-passing or fumbling, or lack of diligence and care, or other reasons unclear, failed to address the situation in a meaningful way – for 20 years.