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March 01, 2018

Measuring Farmland Conversion in Ontario

Measuring Farmland Conversion in Ontario
Farmland in Ontario is under immense pressure from development associated with population growth and urbanization. In many communities, farmland is sacrificed for residential subdivisions, commercial developments and aggregate operations, among others.

 

The future sustainability of agriculture in Ontario is dependent on a stable land base and precise understanding of the availability of farmland. In order to ensure that farmland is available, it is necessary to measure the existing land base and determine the quantity of land being lost to development.  
 
While the Census of Agriculture provides some data related to farmland area, it provides an enumeration of land in production only. It does not account for planning decisions that may compromise the long-term availability of this land.

The loss of farmland to development is fundamentally tied to the land use planning system. Through a research study entitled Land Use Planning and Agriculture: Measuring Farmland Availability, the amount of prime agricultural land converted to non-farm land uses through official plan amendments (OPA) has been quantified for 15 regions and counties within southern Ontario. This data was compiled from 2000-2014 and included the review of hundreds of OPAs.
 
The findings of this project are summarized in the table below.

 
County/
Region
Number of approved OPAs related to the loss of prime agriculture land Prime agriculture redesignated for:
Development designation (Ha) Rural designation (Ha) Non-farm uses through site-specific policy amendments (Ha)
Brant 4 47 0 0
Durham 5 1,723 56 18
Haldimand 17 68 0 198
Halton 12 2,656 0 287
Huron 2 25 0 0
Niagara 42 944 240 851
Northumberland 5 38 47 1.5
Peel 4 3,274 0 127
Perth 57 217 0 415
Peterborough 12 59 15.4 35
Simcoe 47 2,100 82 162
Waterloo 9 1,088 400 0
Wellington 27 812 0 86
York 16 5,233 1,755 0

While farmland preservation policies such as the Greenbelt Act and Places to Grow Act have protected prime agricultural land in southern Ontario, such policies have not fully eliminated the conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural land uses.
 

A map of Ontario’s Greenbelt, c. 2005.
Photo credit: Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation.
There is often a misconception that all prime agricultural land in southern Ontario is protected by the Greenbelt. When a farm is converted to urban use, there is an assumed policy failure. In reality, some of these farms were re-designated decades prior but the physical land use change is only occurring presently.
 
Since the Greenbelt Act was established, no prime agricultural land within the protected countryside has been re-designated to an urban land use, and only one OPA added a site-specific amendment to a farm parcel within the protected countryside. In addition, the farmland currently being re-designated or redeveloped is either outside of the Greenbelt Area or was re-designated before 2005.
 
It is also important to recognize that farms continue to be converted to non-farm land uses. This conversion is directly correlated to population growth pressures, as populations in both Peel Region and the Region of York continue to grow, they have converted the most amount of prime agricultural land.
 

“Before” and “After” images of farmland in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario that demonstrate the conversion of farmland to residential land use. Neither image depicts farmland within the Greenbelt, but are based on land use planning decisions from the 1970s/80s, where the development has occurred within the past five years.

The agricultural land in southern Ontario is a finite resource and, given population growth and continued urbanization, farmland outside of the Greenbelt will remain under threat of development.
 
It will be up to planners to ensure that requested OPAs to convert prime agricultural land to non-farm land uses are necessary and that individual planning decisions do not impact the future viability of the agricultural sector.

Sara will be speaking at the Ontario Farmland Trust's 2018 Farmland Forum which OPPI members are welcome to register for. To learn more, please check out our event listing for this event. 

Header image: A photo of a farmer working the land. Photo credit: Ontario Farmland Trust.

 

Post by Sara Epp

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