LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Living the rural life
Today it takes 100 acres just to make a “contribution to family income”

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of Ontario.

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January 19, 2005: New technology and farm management practices have resulted in many farm properties, especially the typical 100-acre farm, no longer providing a family income from the business of farming. We’ve observed the pattern for decades. Average farm size in Ontario has grown to well over 200 acres, with a lot of farmers renting additional acreage. Most farmers are part of the refinancing and modernizing that has reduced the significance of land to the countryside economy. Farmers are adjusting to a new reality: in a high-tech and information economy, land is less and less the determining factor in the viability of a farm business.

Farmers are adjusting. Is our countryside?

Yes, in some respects. Take the most obvious accommodation--the farm community’s successful argument that farmland should not be burdened with the same level of property taxes encumbering houses, industries and commercial establishments. That program, which began as a rebate to municipalities of a portion of the taxes levied on farmland, is now enshrined as a property class with a taxation level at 25% of the residential rate.

Not adequately, in other respects. Moderating the tax burden on farmland-–while significant does not deal with the biggest problem caused by the declining importance of land to farming. Half a century ago, most 100-acre farms generated enough economic activity to support a family – often a family with several more children than then average-size family of today. Now it takes 200, 300, 500 and in some commodities--if the farming activity is limited to producing bulk undifferentiated commodities--1000s of acres to support one family.

We face a bigger dilemma--our land is not producing enough economic activity to maintain a strong countryside economy. We have passively accommodated the declining economic importance of the countryside rather than actively revitalizing economic activity on our land.

Stimulating the countryside economy has been a frequent point of discussion in the think tank sessions the Christian Farmers Federation organizes for its members. Support has emerged for some significant changes:

  1. The definition of agriculture must be broadened well beyond primary production to include all the value-adding activities that innovative farmers can create: storage, packing, sorting, treating, processing, marketing, or selling.
  2. Permitted uses on a farm property must include a full range of economic activities, both industrial and commercial, as long as they are small scale.

The goal is simple: allow enough economic activity on a countryside property to support a family. We know that agriculture has slipped to a “contribution to family income” for more than half of Ontario’s farming families. It is time to encourage a much broader range of economic activities on our farm properties to revitalize our countryside economy.

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