The Future of Ontario's Farmland
August 30th, 2022
When I began my master’s in Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph, I wanted to learn new ways to integrate community development and agricultural systems. My hope was to find a model of development that would reconnect people to Ontario’s farmland, which provides our communities with nutritious food, stimulates local economies, and can be a key player in fighting climate change. I believed that this reconnection would ignite people’s passion for local food production and raise awareness to the issue of farmland loss. In my new role as executive director with the Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT), my goal is to preserve agricultural land that is disappearing at an alarming rate.
The latest Census of Agriculture shows us that we are losing 116,478 acres of farmland annually, which is nearly 320 acres every day. That’s nearly double the rate of loss since the 2016 census. Whether the land is being lost to aggregate operations or urban development, this rate of loss is unsustainable.
Ontario's Countryside (Photo by Sveta Fedarava on Unsplash)
In the 1980s, Ontario had over 15 million acres of farmland. Today, Ontario is currently farming 11.7 million acres, and at the current rate of farmland loss, we may only have 100 years before it’s all gone. Knowing that, perhaps our conversations should refer to farmland as an endangered resource in this province. It is also important to keep in mind that southern Ontario contains half of all prime agricultural land in the whole of Canada. We urgently need to find solutions to protect this critical resource.
The Greenbelt Plan is one effective tool for farmland protection. It was created in 2005 and remains one of the world’s largest Greenbelts, where agriculture is the predominant land use with it being home to approximately 750,000 acres of farmland. Since its creation, only a few hundred acres of prime agricultural land have been converted to other uses, making the Greenbelt highly effective in protecting farmland.
Urban Sprawl (Photo: Emma Jane Woods)
Another tool that my organization uses is the Conservation Land Act. It enables the OFT to use Farmland Conservation Easement Agreements to protect individual farms. Using these easements, OFT has protected 20 farm properties and over 2,300 acres of farmland across southern and central Ontario.
A conservation easement is a legal agreement between a landowner and a conservation body. The easement is registered with the title of the land and, therefore, remains in effect even when the property is sold. The agreement may include restrictions and allowances designed to protect both the agricultural and natural lands on a property in perpetuity, giving landowners the assurance that their land will never be developed. Easements have allowed us to protect farms like the Brechin Brae Farm in Simcoe County. This 98-acre property has rich, fertile soil producing various row crops, beef cattle, and hay. It is also home to multiple species at risk and is a wildlife corridor that is used by bears, deer, coyotes, and even moose. The landowners are dedicated stewards to the natural spaces and actively engage in restoration activities, such as tree planting on their property.
White-tailed Deer on Brechin Brae Farm (Photo: Mike Douglas)
Witnessing the dedication of landowners pursuing farmland conservation gives us hope that we can protect farmland for today’s and future generations. To be successful, we must continue using a variety of tools. Strong land use planning policies that limit urban boundary expansion and protect farmland and natural habitat like the Greenbelt should be expanded, and other tools like Farmland Easement Agreements should be used in tandem to support these policies.
If one thing is for sure – it is that we can no longer maintain the status quo or we risk losing our communities’ resilience, food supply and rural cultures.
Martin Straathof is the Executive Director of the Ontario Farmland Trust.