The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is sowing seeds of advocacy through its recently launched Home Grown campaign.
It wants to educate Ontarians on how development threatens finite farmland resources and emphasize that agriculture is under pressure to provide affordable food options for Canadians.
Why it matters: Urban sprawl is threatening the viability and sustainability of Ontario farmland and the industry.
Viable farmland, which accounts for approximately five per cent of the Ontario landscape, is being lost to development at a rate of approximately 175 acres a day, according to OFA data.
Every food-producing acre lost to development increases pressure on farmers, increases food costs and affects the provincial and national economies, said OFA president Peggy Brekveld.
“We have a choice to make. We need to decide if farmers are going to continue to grow food right here at home, for all Ontarians to enjoy, making a difference in our economy, our environment and our rural communities,” she said. “Or if that farmer is going to be feeding us from somewhere else.”
While urban development is necessary, the OFA wants agricultural impact assessments to be applied during urban planning discussions to preserve land and minimize the impact on a farmer’s ability to farm.
“We want to continue to be able to produce local food here in Ontario, and we want to see a long-term sustainable planning approach through the provincial policy,” said Drew Spoelstra, OFA vice-president. “This is the first step in trying to advance these issues to the province and trying to get more folks involved.”
Agriculture impact assessments require development project proponents to assess and mitigate the effects of removing productive agricultural land and also to assess the impact on the local ecosystem.
In 1965, the province developed the Canada Land Inventory, Soil Capability Classification for Agriculture, which denoted class one, two and three lands as prime for growing crops. Classes three to seven were deemed as marginal.
OFA past-president Keith Currie said he wants governments to better understand what constitutes productive land. That was the impetus behind getting the Agricultural Impact Assessment Guidance Document integrated into the development review within the Greenbelt in 2017.
Assessments apply to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, 2017; the Greenbelt Plan, 2017; the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan, 2017 and the Niagara Escarpment Plan, 2017.
In modern agriculture, marginal land is productive when used for a dairy facility, greenhouse operation, pasture, woodlot or pollinator habitat to benefit crops.
Protecting marginal land important too: BFO
“BFO has long advocated for the protection of farmland, but more specifically marginal land that isn’t suitable to grow crops, but where beef cattle can thrive on healthy pasturelands,” said Beef Farmers of Ontario President Rob Lipsett.
“Every acre of pastureland that is protected contributes to soil health and provides a home for earthworms, wildlife and birds, not to mention the carbon storage ability of our tame grasslands.”
Research links the decline in Canadian cattle numbers to the decrease in grasslands, contributing to a loss of habitat for grassland birds such as the bobolink and Eastern meadowlark, Lipsett said.
Pastureland also plays a critical role in oxygen production, carbon sequestration, improving and maintaining soil health, biodiversity and water cycling.
“The symbiotic relationship between grasslands and beef cattle has a measurable impact on the environment and the well-being of people,” said Lipsett. “Ontario’s beef farmers continue to protect this important natural ecosystem, but we need the government to work with us to manage urban development responsibly.”
Spoelstra said citizens are more engaged when it comes to growth plans and urban boundary expansion.
“Maybe we need to look at things differently. Maybe we need to build up, not out. Let’s save what we have for now in terms of prime agricultural land,” he said.
Currie said most municipality growth plans submitted to the province are done well and encompass projections up to 2051, but some stand out in their proactive approach to land preservation.
He said Kitchener-Waterloo has a hard line delineating how far development can reach.
“They are starting to go back in and redevelop throughout the city and building up, not out,” said Currie. “They’re building a multitude of different ranges of housing, from single family to mid-rise to high-rise, so there’s a little bit of something for everyone.”
Municipalities also need to grow responsibly and integrate the needs of agriculture into their long-term planning.
Areas of contention include the proposed development of Highway 413 through the western quarter of the greater Toronto area. Predominately in the Peel region, the project threatens prime agricultural land.
The first line of defence is to preserve farmland, said Currie. However, when land development is inevitable, agriculture should factor into development plans before construction begins.
Loss of services, equipment movement also issues
If the province gave weight to agricultural assessments when planning hydro and transportation corridors, rail lines and natural grass infrastructure, it would create a safe and profitable opportunity for farmers and development to coexist, he said.
The farming community requires a robust labour force and access to various agriculture services so it can continue to thrive, Currie said.
The impact of increased traffic flow and infrastructure on farmers’ ability to tend fields, and safely move tractors and implements must be considered, along with the impact on minimum setback requirements for on-farm builds and whether development pressure forces needed services to move out of the area, he added.
Currie said he is confident the Home Grown campaign will provide MPs and the general public with a deeper understanding of rural Ontario and the importance of agricultural land in providing food, economic development and environmental sustainability.
The agriculture sector in Ontario is projected to employ one million people over the next decade so farmland must be protected, said Currie.
“We need to have a conversation with the government on how we’re going to go forward so we can protect the land but achieve the government’s goals too.”
More information on the Home Grown campaign can be found at homegrown.ofa.on.ca.