Council discusses agriculture with WFA’s Janet Harrop

MAPLETON – Township councillors took an opportunity last week to pick the brain of a Wellington Federation of Agriculture (WFA) representative on issues ranging from natural gas and farming demographics to managing the housing crisis.  

WFA past president Janet Harrop delegated to Mapleton council during its meeting on April 9. 

Though Harrop’s reason for delegating was to present findings from the June 2023 Wellington County Agri-Food System Study, the ensuing discussion stretched far beyond the study. 

Wellington County’s growing farmland

An average 319 acres (129 hectares) of Ontario’s farmland is lost every day, according to the study, but in Wellington County, the amount of  farmland is increasing, Mayor Gregg Davidson pointed out. 

“How do we attribute that?” he asked Harrop. 

The increase, Harrop replied, is due to: 

– woodlots being cleared or pushed back; 

– marginal land that was previously pastured now being farmed; and

– adding land that previously wasn’t classified as a farm (ie. – because property owners were in the process of getting their farm business registration). 

“It’s great news that we are having more farmland,” Davidson said. “Let’s hope that the rest of Ontario can pick up their socks a little bit on that.” 

Farm demographics 

Davidson noted the study states 55 per cent of Wellington County farmers are 55 and older. 

He paused and looked up at Harrop before asking, “What’s going to happen? This has got to be a real concern for the farming community.” 

The numbers capture farm business owners,  Harrop noted, “and that may not be the person that’s doing the day-to-day work.” 

For example, for some farms with succession plans, the younger generation may own 20% of the farm, in which case they would not be the deed holder and would not be included in the data. 

Harrop acknowledged there are some farms that don’t have succession plans. But while there is a group of farmers’ children who don’t want to farm, there is also “a whole cluster of people coming out of agricultural universities that are really interested in farming,” she said. 

“So the ideal would be to partner some of the farms that are terminal with somebody whose interested in farming and do a lease or a partnership or something like that. 

“The economics is very very difficult,” she noted. “The debt load, interest rates, cost of capital equipment has gone through the roof.

“So trying to establish those relationships – do more co-ops of kids in universities to be able to work with producers so that there may be those relationships.”

Harrop also noted “People are hiring more and more workers because families are smaller – and those relationships could develop into some type of a succession plan. 

The aging demographic of farmers “is a problem on paper, and on some farms it’s definitely a problem, but we are seeing multiple generations that are working on farms,” she said.

From councillor Michael Martin’s perspective, Mapleton has “a very vibrant” group of people between 30 and 40 years old who are “very present on farms.

“And in fact I would argue that those are the ones driving the investment and the innovation and stuff,” he said. 

Natural gas

Martin asked Harrop about the advocacy by the Wellington and Ontario Federations of Agriculture to bring natural gas to Mapleton farms. 

“We’ve got guys that are farming hundreds of thousands of acres and still rolling with propane,” Martin said. “Guys are doing big tankard trucks of propane daily when these driers are going.” 

Harrop said the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) “has been doing a lot of work around trying to bring natural gas into rural communities.” 

The problem, she said, is a reluctance from the companies providing natural gas that “don’t see an economic business plan to bring natural gas out to the rural area. 

“Which is so frustrating for everybody,” Harrop said. 

“We hear often, ‘well they bring their crops off and then they dry their crops and then that’s it, so they’re not using the volume throughout the year.’” 

In reality, driers run for months, “and barn heating runs a good part of the year as well, depending on the commodity,” Harrop said. 

The OFA is continuing to pursue partnerships with companies to bring natural gas into rural communities, she assured. 

“Interestingly, we have a very green federal government that’s trying to discourage the use of natural gas, but we don’t have an option in the rural community,” she said.

“So trying to have those conversations are also a bit of a barrier in trying to get natural gas.” 

Surplus farm dwellings

Martin asked Harrop where the WFA stands on surplus farm dwelling severance applications.

He said Mapleton township reviews surplus farm dwelling applications on a near-monthly basis, and a local farmer recently spoke to council to advocate against surplus farm dwellings to protect farms and the agricultural sector.  

Harrop said discussions around surplus farm dwellings among WFA board members are “very divided.”

At the county level, she said officials tend to push back against surplus farm dwellings larger than about two and a half to three acres (one to 1.2 hectares). 

“We’ve had staff at the county level say ‘well it’s all wooded – its not farmland.’ Well, woodland is farmland. And especially sequestering carbon and growing living plants is becoming more and more relevant for our consumers.” 

However, Harrop noted the WFA has not suggested the county move away from surplus farm dwellings overall. 


Councillor Marlene Ottens asked how the WFA balances protecting farmland with the need for housing. 

Harrop said the WFA does a lot of work to build relationships with county staff and local media to increase awareness about the value of agricultural land. 

“Because a lot didn’t understand the value – which is where this study came from.” 

The WFA participates in municipal planning discussions to bring the agricultural voice to the table, she said.

“If you don’t have that voice in the planning at the very beginning, then it’s often not there at all, or forgotten.

“There is going to be some farmland lost in the expansion,” Harrop notes. “There will have to be in order to have enough space.” 

The key to finding a balance between providing housing and saving farmland, she said, is intensification, or increasing housing density in urban areas. 

“Intensification not only builds sustainable homes in the sense that they can be affordable and attainable for people that want to stay in the community, but it’s really the only way to preserve farmland.” 

Harrop concluded her delegation by encouraging councillors, “if you have anything comes across your desks  … related to agriculture, always feel free to reach out to the WFA, because we always like to be part of the solution.”