DAVE THOMPSON POCKETED a cool $1.75 million a couple of days after the Ontario government released details about its greenbelt and Thompson learned that his land sat just outside its borders. Four years from now, he’ll receive the balance – another $1.75 million earned from the sale of his 40-hectare dairy farm in Caledon, a rural area northwest of Toronto. Thompson’s grandfather, father and his brother once tilled this fertile soil, but it’s hard to fault Thompson for accepting the $86,000 per hectare ($35,000 per acre) paid by the developer. Who wouldn’t?

The sale of Thompson’s farm to a developer is an all too common example of what is happening to the near-urban agricultural land that surrounds many of Canada’s major towns and cities. The 2006 census counted 229,373 farms in Canada, down 7.1 per cent from 2001. At the same time, it found that there were 327,060 farm operators, a 5.5-per-cent decline. Moreover, Thompson, whose Greater Toronto Area farm features some of the most prized soil and warmest temperatures in the country, is part of another agricultural concern. One in seven farms is located within Canada’s 33 census metropolitan areas, which makes them prime areas of urban development.

Our growing nation’s insatiable appetite for housing, and the commercial and industrial development it spawns, has brought us to a fork in the road. When it comes to agricultural land, and especially near-urban farmland, we can continue down the current path of mass urban development, which is coupled with a conventional, energy-dependent, imported food supply system. Alternatively, we could protect our best farmland from urban sprawl and support the farmers who want to supply local food for the urban market. We can continue to pay for the rising costs of fuel and shipping, and put our trust in other nations (oftentimes with less stringent health regulations), or we could shorten the distance between consumers and farmers, increasing the diversity and improving the availability of local food.

There are limitations to local food choices in Canada, of course. It takes more energy to grow some crops during the winter in greenhouses than to import them, but being able to purchase local food in season is important to a secure food system.

Protecting food supply in near-urban areas is not without challenge, however. We have to wrap our heads around the importance of our agricultural industry, the importance of keeping farmers in farming and the significance of the land base on which farm viability is founded. We need to distinguish the challenges farmers face from those that bother big corporate agri-food industries. And we must tackle the high land prices that developers will pay to vulnerable famers such as Dave Thompson.

Since agricultural crops cannot compete with condos economically, it’s time to consider new approaches and offer up different rules to support farmers and farming in Canada’s near-urban regions. Many of the tools required to protect farmland and the people who farm it already exist. What’s needed is the political will to use what’s out there and experiment with fresh ideas and innovative programs.

Land-use planning

Although it is the traditional means of protecting ­farmland from urban and industrial development, history proves that land-use planning in Canada has failed the test. Each year we lose more agricultural land. If Canadian agricultural soil in good climatic regions was a species, undoubtedly we would be moved to label it endangered.

Long-term commitment to boundaries around urban growth areas is needed to protect our best ­farmland. These boundaries may have varying degrees of flexibility, based on location, soil and climate, but they must be permanent and designed to protect the best agricultural land. For example, it is more important to save the excellent farmland near Ontario’s Lake Erie and in BC’s Fraser Delta than around Peterborough or Kingston in Ontario or in the Peace River Valley in BC. In the first cases, we should allow no flexibility whatsoever, but in the second, we can afford a little.

Growth management programs, such as Ontario’s Places to Grow (see page 25), which increases urban densities, controls urban boundaries and supports ­transit instead of highways, are important contributions. We don’t think of a bicycle rider as saving farmland, but in fact there is a direct connection. Walkable, medium-to high-density neighbourhoods keep development out of the countryside. But when Ontario’s burgeoning population can no longer be accommodated by increasing densities within existing urban areas, a new city may be an option to consider. What about a major new centre in Eastern Ontario between Peterborough and Ottawa? The rocky land is unsuitable for agriculture, and if an environmentally sound site can be found and rail transit supplied, it might be a worthwhile alternative.

Agricultural easements

In critical food growing areas such as the Niagara Fruit Belt, the Holland Marsh, the Fraser Delta and the farmland immediately adjacent to Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, agricultural easements could be used to protect land. An easement is a covenant placed directly on the title to farmland that might, for example, specify that the land will not be used for urban or industrial development. The Ontario Farmland Trust has been encouraging the Canadian government to establish a mechanism for creating agricultural easements and give them the same tax treatment as ecological easements. This tool could contribute to our ability to grow local food, as it has done in the US.

Smaller farms

In Ontario, the standard land-use policy does not allow existing farms to be subdivided into parcels smaller than 40 hectares. This amount of land may be suitable for commodity-oriented farms, but it hinders small-scale farming. Market-gardening operations should be able to rent “agricultural condominiums” or small parcels of land. They should also be offered long-term leases, which encourage these market gardeners to ­steward the land.

Municipal support programs

Simply zoning farmland for agriculture and then hoping that the free market will take care of the rest has proven to be an ineffective municipal strategy. We are faced with farmland in near-urban areas that is outrageously priced. An agricultural advisory committee could help minimize farm/non-farm conflict, promote right-to-farm legislation and make the case to politicians. Municipalities can direct support to farm markets and adopt zoning policies that allow on-farm processing and sales. They can introduce measures that control traffic on rural roads, support farmers using seasonal workers and enforce public health rules for farm ­visitors.

The Region of Waterloo in Southwestern Ontario, for example, is experimenting with cluster development zoning and allowing small on-farm enterprises (another contribution to farm viability). It is also supporting both wholesale and retail farmers’ markets, actively promoting local food marketing and has designed a number of supportive programs (such as signage and wider road shoulders that enable safer travel by farm equipment). We need programs that promote a countryside that embraces agriculture, and is active, busy and economically viable rather than countryside that is an urban shadow of developer-owned, rented farmland and non-farm residences dissected by rural roads, which are clogged with commuter traffic.

Support for local food production

Small-scale food production systems require the same attention as is given to innovation in large-scale ­agriculture. Government agencies could provide more information and access to advisors on both the production and marketing of local food, as well as grants and low-interest loans to support farmers changing their production methods. Since local food can contribute to agricultural viability, which in turn can lead to farmland preservation, we should be willing to experiment with programs that support an increase in specialty crops including vegetables. Programs that label food by source or by food-miles may contribute indirectly by encouraging consumers to purchase food produced locally. To this end, BC’s Farm Folk/City Folk Society forges relationships between farmers and consumers, many of whom have expressed a keen interest in knowing more about the food they eat.

The significant expansion of interest in organic ­farming is another area in need of innovation, especially in the local food market. Statistics Canada reports that in 2006, 6.8 per cent of farms reported that they were producing uncertified, transitional or certified organic products. This percentage, however, jumps to 8.3 per cent for near-urban farms. Furthermore, though we often associate organic farming with vegetable production, there are in fact many organic beef, dairy and other operations as well.

Organic production often, though not always, involves small family farms, ethical treatment of animals and humane practices regarding farm labourers, which has lead to a debate over the relative importance of organic versus local. Some 85 per cent of the organic produce in Canadian grocery stores travels all the way from California, where it is produced by enormous agri-businesses. The debate is a healthy one though, and some unique positive responses are being seen. Toronto’s Local Food Plus is a great model. It certifies and labels local, sustainably produced food (anywhere in Ontario), which may or may not be organic.

The new generation of farmers

The new generation of farmers includes more than the progeny of existing farm families. Young people from urban areas are interested in farming, as are immigrants. We need to educate today’s youth and immigrants about opportunities in agriculture so they see it as a career option. Furthermore, direct tangible programs that support these new farmers are required if we are to foster more financially viable agriculture near cities and thereby protect the farmland itself. In Europe, direct grants and low-interest loans are available to young farmers.

We also need to provide technical support, especially for those who do not have a farm parent to turn to for advice. Immigrants need special assistance, including help to break the language barrier and to become ­familiar with all aspects of Canadian agriculture. Such initiatives can foster innovation as they tap into new and creative ideas from a non-traditional farming sector.

As a start, the Centre for Land and Water Stewardship at the University of Guelph takes members of Toronto’s immigrant communities to visit farms. And Ontario’s FarmStart supports the new generation of farmers with both training and incubator farms, where people can try out farm production on a small scale. Furthermore, FarmStart and the Ontario Farmland Trust are developing a program known as Farm LINK to bring those who own land together with new farmers who want access to it.

Ecological goods and services

Paying farmers for the ecological goods and services they provide (cleaning water, providing habitat for wildlife, etc.), a pillar of the European Common Agricultural Policy and a key component of the US Farm Bill, is not yet common in Canada. Such payments recognize the role farmers play in conservation and would be improved if they had special provisions for farmers who switched to local food production. We should be experimenting with innovative ways in which consumers pay a small premium that supports participating farmers.

History teaches us that without a strong commitment to its preservation, farmland is sentenced to a slow, piecemeal, but inevitable, demise. Planning must acknowledge the complexity of the agricultural ­industry, acknowledge the extreme difference between land prices for farming and land prices for development, and be paired with support programs for the next generation of farmers and local food production. Otherwise, we will continue to see farmers sell out as Dave Thompson was compelled to do.

In Holy Cows and Hog Heaven: The Food Buyer’s Guide to Farm Friendly Food, author Joel Salatin says it best. He writes, “To all caring food buyers, I honor you. To all farm friendly food producers, I honor you. We must be committed, focused, and persistent if we are to see farm friendly food triumph. It can. It’s up to us. Let’s keep on keeping on.”

Stew Hilts teaches in the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph. He studies farmland ­preservation policies. Ione Smith is a special projects co-ordinator with Smart Growth BC. Melissa Watkins is the executive director of the Ontario Farmland Trust.

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate today to support our work.

A\J moderates comments to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discussion.
Comments may be considered for publication in the magazine.