A group of Ontario farmers discuss farmland protection and housing issues
NORTHEASTERN ONTARIO — Farmland protection and housing are impacted across Ontario, including on Manitoulin Island, by soaring prices for all properties, land development for businesses rather than farming and the decrease in the number of people choosing farming as a profession.
“I know of three farm properties that have been sold on Manitoulin Island in the last two years for over $1 million each,” Bonita Mercer told members of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO ) at their Northeastern Ontario District annual meeting last week. “It definitely changes the tax base and some people can’t afford their own house.” Ms. Mercer is a farmer from Monetville who also owns a farm and property on Manitoulin Island.
All the issues discussed during the meeting, including the question of the protection of agricultural land and housing, will be raised by CFFO with the candidates of the three parties during the next provincial elections.
Five main topics were on the policy agenda, including carbon pricing and trade; protection of agricultural land and housing; agricultural work; environmental stewardship; and food security.
Using a series of graphs, meeting moderator Suzanne Armstrong of CFFO illustrated a key fact: over the past 35 years, approximately 2.8 million acres of farmland (18%) were lost to non-agricultural uses. During the period from 1996 to 2016, approximately 175 acres were lost every day due to urban development.
“As the numbers show, the loss of agricultural land is significant in every region of Ontario,” said Ms. Armstrong. “But what will people eat if there is no land to produce food?”
West Nipissing has lost a lot of agricultural land to development, Mercer said. Other than his farm, there is only one other small cow-calf farm in the area. “There is a lot of development allowed for subdivisions. We see more and more farmers selling lots and people coming from southern Ontario to live.
Manitoulin land and homes have been selling so fast for two years, she added. “You better not sell your property unless you already have somewhere else.”
Ontario’s population has grown by 950,000 over the past five years and builders have been unable to keep up, Ms. Armstrong said. One million homes will be needed over the next 10 years to meet this need, but 83% of buyers cannot afford the average resale home. Resale home prices have risen eight to nine percent while incomes have only increased two percent a year.
The Kingston area is impacted by people moving from Toronto, Vic Schamehorn said. The price of real estate and housing there rose by about 40% last year, he said. “And in Prince Edward County, the wealthy are coming in and buying up all the properties, including farm properties. It used to be an agricultural area, but now it’s more of a resort area.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused more people in central and southwestern Ontario to work online, making it easier for city dwellers to transition to rural life.
“The property is divided into lots with land separations,” said Ray Ford. “People from southern Ontario are setting up their farms and coming up north where they’re buying farm property for recreation. It’s a problem. If you’re in the cow-calf sector and you’re looking for land, it gets much more difficult in the north.
“Farmers retiring or leaving the business are selling their properties and new homes are being built,” Brenda Schamehorn added. “Land that was once farmed is no longer farmed and the significant increase in property values affects us.”
Alex Oosterhof said it’s not a real concern in his area near Brockville and pointed out that in southern Ontario new vineyards are constantly being developed. He agreed that housing is an issue on everyone’s agenda.
There are positive aspects to this rural migration, as Mr. Oosteroff pointed out. A few years ago, the local high school in the Elgin-Hastings-Northwood area was at risk of closing due to declining population, but that has changed as more and more people move in. settled in the area. The land there was too difficult to cultivate, he said. “It was very marginal land” for agriculture.
“Most municipal politicians don’t have agricultural experience and don’t see the value in maintaining farmland,” Ford said. “It’s been a long-standing concern of farmers in Parry Sound or Gray County that farmland is being purchased for recreational purposes.”
“Our municipalities need money for infrastructure, to cover their costs,” Schamehorn said.
How to engage development where it is good and discourage development where it should not is an important consideration. “All of this affects agriculture,” Ms. Armstrong said. “Farmland doesn’t make a lot of money for cities (in terms of taxes), but if you put 100 houses in an area, municipalities benefit.”
She wondered if more restrictions on land separations would help. “In Peterborough they have green belts. Is zoning a tool that can be used to prevent the loss of agricultural properties? ” she asked.
“Rural zoning does little to protect farmland,” Ford said. “We should consider writing letters on behalf of our districts to try to impress on them the importance of maintaining farmland.”
Mr. Oosteroff wondered if it would be helpful if there was a percentage of farmland versus people. “If we have a population of 100,000 people, we need that many acres of productive farmland,” he suggested. “They have no percentage left for food production. Ontario produces food for Ontario and the world. This is why it is so important to protect it.
“What is the solution?” asked CFFO President Ed Scharringa. “We all know that values go up. Can we do something? »
“Maybe we need to do more advocacy on behalf of our members and find more ways to transition the farm,” Scharringa suggested.
Passing on skills from generation to generation is another challenge, and with rising land and housing prices, it is not economically viable for young people to venture into agriculture.
“If farmers don’t have land to work and produce food, and young people don’t learn farming skills, it’s not sustainable,” Schamehorn said. “I have no one behind me to begin with and we are losing the ability to cultivate, the generations who built and colonized the land.
One suggestion was to create opportunities for people who want to grow food on their land through some kind of government grant program.
Food consumers represent 98% of the population, underlined Paul Bootsma, head of external services at CFFO. “More and more people don’t understand agriculture and food production as fields are turned into housing. As long as there is food in grocery stores, our customers won’t worry about food safety. Agriculture must be in contact with our consumers. They see 200 acres in a field but don’t make the connection to food production. If a young couple passes by, they must know that they are eating products from this field. Consumers need to know where their food comes from.
A member pointed out that there are a lot of pre-packaged foods on store shelves. He does not view food safety as an issue, but rather as an affordability issue, as packaged foods are more affordable.
“Maybe we need to go back to basics,” Mr. Schamehorn said. “Family units have changed. They are no longer suitable for showing the next generation how to properly prepare food. »
Labor relations, regulations and transportation were also considered concerns. A member works in the summer at a local slaughterhouse that processes chickens. He thinks there aren’t as many small slaughterhouses as there should be, largely because of “heavy regulations and labour”. It would be nice, he said, for the government to lift some of these regulations. “They discourage a lot of small butchers.”
CFFO has advocated for less bureaucracy and regulations for small slaughterhouses, Ms Armstrong said.
“We called the minister and they are well aware,” Mr Scharringa said. “Often Minister Lisa Thompson promised it would be done. Enough talk, let’s get down to business.
“It was a great conversation,” Mr. Bootsma concluded. “Everything will be put in place as we go through all the constituencies and we will have a toolkit ready to present to candidates in the provincial election, once the election is called.”