Kelowna farms push for more agritourism

Kelowna was recently ranked as the top entrepreneurial city in Canada but local farmers feel as if their business ideas are being held back by city council.

Sukhpaul Bal’s family has been part of Kelowna’s farming landscape since the early 1900’s. Since then, the cities tourism and tech industries have exploded. But Bal believes his Hillcrest Farms and others like it are being denied the opportunity to grow and diversify in an economically risky industry like farming.

Currently, the City of Kelowna allows farms to annually host ten events with a maximum of 150 people per event. Bal believes his Hillcrest Farms has the necessary infrastructure and demand to host more events with more people. To do this a farm must apply for a ‘non-farm use’ permit.

To obtain a non-farm use permit one must bring an application to city council where it can be approved, denied or forwarded to the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) for further consideration.

Bal’s application for a ‘non-farm use’ permit asked specifically for the opportunity to hold unlimited events with up to 1000 persons per event. While it may sound like a large request, Bal claims it’s no different than what local wineries are allowed to host events wise.

Kelowna City Council didn’t agree with the permit requests but that’s not why Bal’s upset “council flat out denied our request without forwarding it on to the ALC for them to review, make recommendations and improve on” says Bal “there was the potential for the ALC to work with the city and Hillcrest Farms to reach a comprise that benefits all parties, but city council denied us that opportunity.”

Hillcrest Farms is 140 acres, with its largest crop being cherries. The events area, which Bal currently hosts his allocated ten events a year, is on two acres of the farm which has never been fertile enough to effectively grow fruit.

The move to host more events comes in the hope of mitigating the economic risks that come with farming crops like cherries. The family business was hit hard this year by heavy rains in June that wiped out half his crop in a matter of days “I joke with my friends that I don’t need to go to Vegas to gamble, farmers gamble everyday” jokes Bal.

So why would Kelowna city council deny a non-farm use permit? City Councilor Charlie Hodge maintains the current farm use event rules are still new and council needs to see how they play out before granting larger permits, adding that “many people on council are already not ok with the current non-farm use rules”

Bal see’s a double standard between wineries and other farms in the current regulations “wineries are allowed to host summer concert series and multiple events on a monthly basis, what does that have to do with farming” questions Bal, adding “we’re serious farmers, we just built a cherry packing house that was an investment in the millions, my son will be a fith generation farmer if he takes on the family business.”

A family business that Bal hopes will have multiple agritourism opportunities to create revenue similar to wineries and golf courses in the area. But Hodge believes the current regulations allow plenty of opportunity “if the events season is an eight month window and you get to do 10 events at 150 people, that’s more than one a month” adding “because someone has a big property, that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to more events than others.”

Council can easily site their concerns with larger non-farm use permits noting noise complaints, parking and risks of farmers not using their properties primarily for crops all as big issues. But if Kelowna truly see’s itself as an entrepreneurial leader, farmers will continue to question why their unique properties can’t be used more for agritourism.

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