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
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
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
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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