At the Bring Food Home & Eastern Ontario Local Food Conference held this past fall at the University of Ottawa, one of the workshops was a policy discussion on “Farmland Preservation and Protection”. The purpose of the workshop was to “develop a set of policy positions aimed at strengthening Ontario’s capacity to preserve farmland for agricultural use, and limit investment, development and conversion pressures that may result in its degradation”.
The resource that was used as a starting point was a research paper created by a University of Ottawa student Christopher Kelly-Bisson. In his paper, he revealed some startling statistics. From 1986 to 2016, the total amount of Ontario farmland had decreased 11.5%. Within that statistic, crop land had increased by 3%, while pasture land had decreased 50% and all other types of farmland had decreased by 23%. From 2006 to 2016, Ontario lost 7.2% of its farmland, which is equivalent to a piece of land approximately a quarter of the size of the City of Toronto.
Some of the reasons for this decline were discussed at length. One reason is “urban sprawl” or simply population growth, which is causing urban areas to expand outwards. As large and medium-sized urban centres grow, they start spreading out into areas that were previously agricultural lands, which are being bought and developed by residential developers. Some of the smaller farmers are reluctantly willing to sell their land because their farms are no longer sustainable or there may not be someone in the family willing to take over the farm.
Another related reason was the significant decrease in the total number of farms, mostly smaller ones. For the same reasons as above, a lack of succession options within the family or the farm is no longer financially sustainable. The costs involved in operating a farm have steadily risen over the last three decades to the point where for some its not financially possible to operate a smaller farm. Medium-sized and larger farms appear to be better equipped to financially handle the challenges of farm operations. Some of these same medium to large-sized farms are also buying up the smaller ones or at least portions of their land assets. The “Go Big Or Go Home” philosophy seems to be not only alive and well, but in some cases a financial necessity.
Farmland speculation is also a contributor to the situation. Some corporations are buying farmland and then sitting on the land, speculating that the value of the land will increase over time and they’ll be able to sell it for a much higher price down the road. This means that prime or even serviceable agricultural land that could be producing food or other agricultural products that would help local economies, will instead possibly sit inactive for years, until the right bidder comes along.
To maintain or grow a strong local food system, we need to prevent these situations from happening. We need an adequate amount of prime agricultural land and more farms to provide sustainable food production to also strengthen our food security so that major crop failures in other parts of the world don’t raise food prices and create food shortages here. There are steps at the municipal level that we can take to reduce the possibility of this happening. For example, between 2000-2014, York Region lost 7000 hectares of agricultural land to non-farm uses.
Ontario has created several policies, policy statements and land use strategies over the past twenty years to make it more difficult to convert farmland to non-farm uses, however these strategies are limited and often subject to both municipal and/or regional cooperation and interpretation. Let’s help keep our local farmers on their land by buying what they produce. You can also visit www.ontariofarmlandtrust.ca and www.bonnefield.com to see how these two organizations are doing in this area.