WFA urges county to consider impact of agriculture in policy decisions

Half of prime farmland in province could be lost to development by 2051: Harrop

GUELPH – With Ontario losing 318 acres of farmland per day to development, the province is on pace to lose half its prime agricultural land by 2051.

That sobering statistic was offered by Wellington Federation of Agriculture (WFA) president Janet Harrop during discussion on a Wellington County Farmland and Agri-good Systems study at the Sept. 28 county council meeting.

The 318-acres-per-day figure is one cited regularly by agricultural advocates as they strive to push back against pressure to urbanize farmland in an effort to combat Ontario’s growing housing crisis.

While moves like the provincial government’s now-abandoned Greenbelt land swap grab headlines, Harrop said it’s not just large-scale moves that threaten farmland.

“Death by a thousand cuts,” she called it.

“It’s all those little things. It’s all the official plan amendments, it’s all of the variances, it’s all of those little things that follow the land that was rezoned from primary ag to secondary ag, but now it has homes on it and not agriculture.

She added, “We’re talking about a planning period right now, as of 2051. At that 318 acres of farmland loss a day from now until 2051, if it continues at that same rate, we’ll have lost half of the farmland in Ontario, half of the prime agricultural land in Ontario.”

Harrop noted planning decisions made today will shape the future of agriculture in the province.

“We are now looking at a time when we have to make those decisions that in 30 years we’ll be looking back and seeing the impact,” she stated.

An agri-food systems study conducted for the WFA by the Wilton Group was presented to county council at the meeting. It highlights the importance of agriculture to the local provincial and national economy.

“Wellington County has a thriving agri-food system that contributes $2.8 billon dollars to Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) and more than 35,000 jobs,” said Wilton Group lead consultant Bronwynne Wilton.

The study notes the 35,000-job figure includes jobs in food manufacturing and food-related retail, which make up about two-thirds of the total.

“Wellington County is a powerhouse in field crop production, livestock production, processing, value-added activities and agricultural inputs and services,” said Wilton.

“And now more than ever, for a few reasons: what we learned through the COVID pandemic about the importance of a resilient local domestic food supply system; through the war in Ukraine, and climate change, we must understand and communicate the value of the agricultural system has for the economy, environment and society.”

The study shows that though it covers only 0.2 per cent of land in Ontario, Wellington County produces 5% of the province’s field crops, and a significant portion of animal agriculture.

The county is home to a total of 418,296 acres of field crops, producing 4% of the province’s soybeans, 4% of its grain corn, and 7% of its winter wheat. 

Agricultural acreage in Wellington County makes up:

  • 10% of Ontario’s corn silage acreage;
  • 9% of its mixed grain acreage; and
  • 8% of its barley acreage.

The county is also home to:

  • 12% of Ontario’s dairy farms;
  • 10% of its poultry and egg farms; and
  • 8% of its hog and pig farms.

More than 12,260 people work directly in agriculture in Wellington County, contributing $841 million to Ontario’s GDP.

In 2021, the county produced 5.8% of Ontario’s farm cash receipts.  

The high cost of farmland is among the challenges currently facing new entrants to agriculture, the study notes.

It also points out that with the average age of farmers passing 56 years, 40% of Canada’s farmers are expected to retire by 2033, while just 11% of Wellington County’s farm businesses have a written transition plan.

Protecting the soil is another challenge faced by the farming community, said Wilton.

“Once paved over, we cannot harness the economic, social and environmental benefits of soil,” she told council.

“Class 1-3 soils are a non-renewable resource,” she added, imploring councillors to consider the value of farmland as an economic driver and a non-renewable resource while making planning policy.

Councillor Shawn Watters agreed local policy makers need to be aware of the importance of agriculture.

“It’s the biggest industry in our in our community, it’s one that we have to be cognizant of and how we need to protect it,” stated Watters.

“With all the growth pressures within our community, we need to we need to look at this in a more wholistic way in terms of how do we protect that valuable land and these valuable resources. We need to do that now.”

Watters added, “Growth is coming very quickly and if we don’t get a handle on this, we’re going to lose the most valuable resource that we have, which is our agricultural piece in this community.”

“I think the most important words that got spoken were that class one to three (farmland) are non-renewable. And I think this generation … we’ve taken food and food security for granted as a birth right … we’re rapidly approaching that not being the case,” said councillor Cambpell Cork.

“I think that we, as a council, need to think about that even when we’re on a small level, when we’re building a building, or when we’re making decisions, not even just necessarily the big stuff.”

“Two things that stuck out to me were the 40 per cent by 2023, farmers that are retiring, and the other one only 11% with transition plans,” said councillor Dave Turton, who asked the delegation about the implications of those numbers.

“I don’t want to say it’s a crisis, that’s a little bit too dramatic – but it is definitely an issue that the agricultural sector across Canada is looking at right now,” said Wilton.

Harrop pointed out the high cost of real estate is discouraging some farmers from purchasing a retirement home “in town” and turning the farm over to the next generation.

“Even if they do have somebody in the next generation that’s interested (in farming) and they are connected to an urban boundary, and with some of this boundary expansion that’s happening, if they can turn around and sell their land for significantly more than it’s worth as agricultural land, it really puts them in a position where they really can’t say no – and then the next generation doesn’t have that opportunity,” she explained.

“So we’re seeing more changes. We’re seeing non-family members coming into share structures, rent-to-own opportunities, lease opportunities; so we have to continue expanding on those and just recognize the economic piece, the capital economic piece of getting in agriculture is extremely high.”

Councillor Chris White asked if the delegation had heard any rumblings the province would be reconsidering its decision to arbitrarily extend urban boundaries in some municipalities, including Wellington County, in light of the government’s recent reversal on the Greenbelt land swap.

In April the provincial government made unilateral changes to an amendment to Wellington County’s Official Plan, adding more than 1,000 acres of mostly agricultural land to urban boundaries around Fergus, Elora, Rockwood and Clifford.

“If they’ve pulled back on the Greenbelt, is there going to be any review of the changes that we’ve had with OPs?” White asked.

“It’s a considerable amount of farmland in there. And I believe that the county had a reasonable plan to try to deal with housing density.”

“I think we just need to continue putting pressure on our provincial parties,” said Harrop.

Council received the presentation as information.