LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Pay the man
Society, not farm families, must make the decision to preserve the farmland

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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July 7, 2005: “Save the farmer; the farmer will save the farmland.” I’ve heard this argument many times, especially at the many farmland preservation conferences that I’ve attended over the decades. The argument, while appealing, is pure rhetoric, disconnected from any reality check. It is not rooted in the economics of farming, nor in the land market.

Last week’s Farmland Preservation Conference at the University of Guelph, sponsored by the Ontario Farmland Trust, was a breath of fresh air. No one made the simplistic argument that improving farm prices and the profitability of farming is all it takes to assure us that our best farmland will be there for decades to come – that the present pattern of losing 2% of our very best farmland to the urban footprint, every decade – will stop.

The Waterloo Federation of Agriculture spoke from experience. Total receipts per acre of successful farms in Waterloo region come nowhere near the return per acre realized from development lands. One last crop of houses is an economic opportunity that none of our farming systems can hope to match. Society, not farm families, must make the decision to preserve the farmland. Assuming that farm families will do it for us is pie-in-the-sky thinking.

The purpose of last week’s conference was not to focus on the “how to” of farmland preservation. Rather, the conference recognized that our provincial government has taken some modest steps with the new Provincial Policy Statement under the Planning Act and the Golden Horseshoe Greenbelt Act to provide more protection for farmland. The conference moved on to meeting the challenges of farming on protected land, often in the shadow of our cities.

Protecting farmland does not mean that we have saved the farm.

Dick Esseks from the University of Nebraska and Patty Cantrell from the Michigan Land Use Institute shared their experiences with invigorating farming communities on the edge of cities. Ho Wong, Director of Planning for Halton Region, described the Greenbelt as a case of missed opportunities.

Protecting our farmland is essential for the success of the business of farming. By itself, it is not enough. The business of farming must have a strong economic future. A viable farming system makes protecting farmland practical.

Having taken step one, the province of Ontario must now take step two.

Most of our farmland is privately owned. We have come to expect abundant, cheap food from the farm businesses that manage these lands. In addition, the emerging regulatory regime expects these farm businesses to enhance our countryside’s environmental goods and services – without remuneration.

This situation will not hold. Let’s pay those who keep protected farmland productive.

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