'Once it's gone, it's gone': Loss of farmland flagged as civic election issue

A Ontario farmers group says more focus should be placed in the civic election on valuable farmland being lost to development, a problem unfolding across Southwestern Ontario.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) wants candidates and voters in the Oct. 24 election to pay more attention to agricultural issues, particularly protecting farmland.

“Only five per cent of Ontario’s land base is suitable for agricultural and food production,” OFA vice-president Drew Spoelstra said.

“I think every voter in Ontario, whether you’re urban, rural, farm or otherwise, should be concerned about the loss of farmland,” he said. “It’s a non-renewable resource. Once you pave it over, there’s no coming back.”

Ontario lost 319 acres of farmland a day over the last five years, nearly double the 175 acres a day lost between 2011 and 2016, according to the latest federal census data. That’s almost 800 hockey rinks worth each day, OFA notes, enough to grow more than 23.5 million apples or 74.6 million carrots.

In Southern Ontario — which takes in the region around London, one of Canada’s richest farm belts — overall farmland has shrunk at a rate of 43 acres, or nearly three-and-a-half Rogers Centres, a day.

“It really is a big-picture issue in Southwestern Ontario and even the GTHA (Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area). Because we can’t recreate this resource, once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Kelly Elliott, deputy mayor and mayoral candidate for Thames Centre, a largely rural municipality east of London.

While most of the region is losing farmland to development, some areas appear to be gaining it. In Chatham-Kent, Elgin and Middlesex counties, farmland increased by 7.5, 3.2 and 2.1 per cent, respectively, census figures show.

But over in Oxford County, known as Ontario’s dairy capital, farmland dropped by 2.6 per cent, from 444,142 acres to 432,756, over the last five years. Largely rural, farm-heavy Lambton lost 41,423 acres, or seven per cent, of it farmland, according to the census.

Land use planning is largely a municipal responsibility, as elected officials have the authority to change official plans and determine urban boundaries, and decide where and how developments should occur.

Municipalities must balance addressing the housing crisis with protecting farmland, Elliott said. “We’re also looking at how we do that . . . where is that fine line?”

But in ditching old ways of building and finding new ones, municipal officials often face blowback, she added. “I think the public wants to protect agricultural land . . . but at the same time, they don’t want the consequence . . . and that’s increasing density in our urban growth boundaries.”

OFA’s push to get people engaged with the civic election comes months after the farmer-led group launched a campaign calling on Queen’s Park and municipalities to better protect farmland and food production when planning urban development.

“A lot of our message is around doing your research and ensuring that we’re finding candidates . . . supportive of agriculture in general, but some of our more targeted issues (include) farmland preservation, support for local food,” and reducing red tape to make it easier for farmers to expand their businesses, Spoelstra said.

OFA has a list of questions organizations, farmers and residents can ask local candidates about land use. It also has developed a guideline, available at ofa.on.ca/GrowAg, to help municipalities understand challenges facing farmers and identify ways they can support agriculture.

cleon@postmedia.com

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Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press