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In May 2022, Oxford County — the dairy capital of Ontario — submitted its five-year-plan for agricultural land to the province.
Farmland comprises 87 per cent of the land in the county, making agriculture the heart and soul of its economy and society. “It’s true that if you live in Ontario, some ingredient or food in your kitchen came from Oxford County,” Marcus Ryan, the county’s warden, told The Narwhal.
But the pressures on farmers and farmland are getting more intense: rapid population growth has increased the number of mouths to feed, while the number of farm families has been steadily dropping. Meanwhile, commodity prices soared during the pandemic and climate conditions worsened.
After months of consultation with residents and farmers, the county came up with a plan to cope with all of this in the near future. It committed to “protecting and preserving” prime agricultural land by officially designating all lands outside of built-up areas as such, but left some flexibility to build housing. That included the expansion of existing residential units on agricultural lands — so adding a garage or additional floors to a farmhouse.
The plan required approval from the Ford government to ensure it complied with provincial growth and development targets. “We thought it would be relatively straightforward: let us protect farmland,” Ryan said about submitting the plan last May. It was anything but.
The county didn’t hear from the province for almost a year. Ryan prodded for updates for months, including writing to Housing and Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark directly in March. That’s when he heard the province was not going to approve the county’s plan and was instead set to propose huge changes that would open farmland to development.
Those sweeping changes came in April via both a new provincial planning statement — a broad policy that dictates how Ontario grows — and Bill 97, the Helping Homebuyers, Protecting Tenants Act. The goal, according to Clark, was to create a “housing-supportive” policy that could enable the construction of 1.5 million new homes by 2031. To do so, the province said, it had to make it easier for municipalities to expand into farmland.
“We were quite shocked,” Ryan said. “This was the most radical shift in agricultural policy we have ever seen.”
This has become a quintessential Ontario story under the tenure of the Ford government: a sudden policy proposal with sweeping changes, announced without notice or consultation with those most affected and ushered through despite warnings about the potential for devastating long-term consequences. And, in a quintessential Ontario response, the province promised to roll back some aspects of the policy after public backlash — but not enough to stop experts and those affected from worrying.
The difference with the proposal to change farmland governance is that it threatens our safe access to food.
While recent policy developments in the Greenbelt and other green spaces have caused much concern, “the province’s proposed changes for farmland is in many ways much worse,” said Wayne Caldwell, a farmer and professor of rural land planning and development at the University of Guelph.
For one, the changes threaten to allow tens of thousands more large single-family homes scattered among farms, meaning less land for food and livestock, but also more roads, more traffic, more human activity in general. “We need to make sure that we don’t have unintended consequences that, right now, are in fact much worse than people have realized.”
According to the 2021 Census of Agriculture, Ontario is home to 25.5 per cent of the country’s farms. But, less than five per cent of Ontario’s land base is prime agricultural land and, according to Ontario Farmland Trust, the province is losing 319 acres of farmland every day to other uses. At that rate, Ontario will lose all of its farmland in 100 years.
The original policies, which have been in place for 50 years, were introduced to slow down the rate of farmland loss, Martin Straathof, executive director of the Ontario Farmland Trust, told The Narwhal. “Reversing these policies means increasing the rate of farmland loss at a time when we need policies to protect it.”
“Pitting farmland and the need to preserve farmland against the need of housing is not really a great way to make sure we have a foundation of a great community.”
Here’s a look at what the Ford government has proposed and why it’s significant.
Broadly, the new planning statement and Bill 97 propose to weaken protections for agricultural land in favour of rural sprawl. Development on farmland has officially been deemed “optional” in the new policy, meaning the decision to build is at the discretion of landowners and municipalities.
The most controversial proposal is one that permits farmland to be severed and developed as residential, estate-size lots. It allows the creation of up to three new residential houses on a single parcel of farmland — previously, only one was allowed. These are unserviced lands without wastewater pipes: to ready them for single-family homes, farmland would have to be dug up to install sewage connections and wells, which both Straathof and Caldwell say could render the land infertile.
The new policies also allow municipalities to expand their boundaries whenever and wherever they want. Most rural municipalities in Ontario are surrounded by farmland, and their populations are increasing rapidly due to an exodus from the Greater Toronto Area driven by the pandemic and housing costs.
Previously, municipalities could only expand their boundaries after justifying it as the only way to accommodate population growth over the next 25 years, and showing a plan for sewage and energy. Under the new policies, a landowner could buy a property on the edge of a rural town and submit a plan to build on it.
“That’s not just bad planning, that’s no planning at all,” Ryan said.
The results of all this will be complex and likely damaging: bringing air pollution, road salt runoff and pavement, generally — all forever changing the land’s ability to grow things or help mitigate floods, drought and heat.
“Agricultural systems are healthiest when they are big areas with nothing in between,” Peggy Brekveld, president of Ontario Federation of Agriculture, a lobby group that represents 38,000 farm families, told The Narwhal.
Residential properties near farms require what’s known as “minimum distance separation”: essentially, a buffer zone that can’t be farmed, whether for livestock pasture or to grow food.
This rule has “saved rural Ontario for decades,” Caldwell said, ensuring that people are separated from things like crop odour, dust and pesticide pollution. But increasing housing in farm areas would mean that not just new neighbourhoods, but chunks of land around them, would become farming no-go zones.
“What we’re seeing is a cherry-picking of policies … that the province views as favourable to building housing, not whether or not they are sustainable or desirable,” said Emily C. Sousa, a land-use planner in the County of Brant who specializes in agricultural land. “There’s no individual autonomy for municipalities to dictate what they do with farmland anymore, which I think is scary.”
The government’s own Housing Affordability Task Force said in February 2022 that “land is available, both inside the existing built-up areas and on undeveloped land outside greenbelts” to meet the province’s housing goals. “Relying too heavily on undeveloped land would whittle away too much of the already small share of land devoted to agriculture,” the task force concluded.
This was echoed in a February 2023 report by Kevin Eby, a former Region of Waterloo planning director, who calculated that Ontario has enough developable land in already built-up areas for over two million new homes. The report found that many Ontario municipalities did not need to expand their boundaries into green space or farmland to accommodate population growth forecasts.
With deep concern.
Several farming-heavy municipalities in southwestern Ontario have come out with devastating calculations. Oxford County staff estimate the Ford government’s policies will create 18,600 residential houses on agricultural land. That could translate to 10 per cent loss in agricultural lands.
Huron County expects to lose 25,000 acres of farmland. Wellington County staff believe 27,478 acres of farmland will be lost to build at least 12,000 single-family homes.
Middlesex County estimates it will have to build more than 21,000 houses on farmland to comply.
In total, that’s more than 128,000 acres of farmland lost across three counties in southwestern Ontario. The irony is both Middlesex and Oxford staff have noted the required growth could be accommodated in built-up areas with existing wastewater, energy and transit connections. Farmland, they note, doesn’t have to be sacrificed for this growth to happen.
In May, a month after the new provincial policy statement was released, 14 province-wide farming organizations representing beef, chicken, dairy, egg, pork, sheep, turkey and veal producers came together to make a collective statement in “strong opposition” to the proposed changes. The united front from the National Farmers Union, Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario was a significant and rare occurrence.
“We do not support policies that will increase residential lot creation in prime agricultural areas or in rural areas that are actively farmed,” their joint statement said. “Ontario boasts some of Canada’s richest and most fertile farmland and these policy changes put the sustainability of that land and the food system it provides at great risk.”
Policies that impact farmland cannot be viewed in isolation, Straathof said. On Friday, two months after the new provincial policy statement was first released, the government finally added sections concerning natural heritage — all the natural lands that interconnect and weave throughout Ontario’s lands, including farmland, like woodlands, wetlands, valleys and waterways. Any development on farmland will have run-off impacts on natural heritage and farmers, agricultural land researchers and others will be examining them closely.
“There are so many substantial changes,” Straathof said. “You can’t look at just farmland without looking at everything else. It’s a very intricate system. All these policies need to interact.”
Because of the fierce and swift backlash, the Ford government has had to take its foot off the pedal in ushering through these changes. Earlier this month, the province backed away from its policy to allow three additional residential lots on farmland.
In a May 29 letter to several members of the joint farmers’ statement, Clark wrote to “clarify the government’s intentions” on increasing the number of residential lots on farmland — the most controversial of all the changes. He wrote that the government’s goal was to provide housing “that would let children taking over the farm or retiring parents live close by to assist with succession planning.” He said he had “clearly heard the concerns that have been raised about the need to preserve Ontario’s farmland.”
Clark didn’t provide assurance that farmland wouldn’t be developed, only that any new residences would be single-family homes, not multi-residential structures and that future residential lots would only be permitted to be transferred or sold to family members or other farm owners.
“Any ambiguity regarding our intentions will be clarified, eliminated and resolved,” he said.
The policies are currently open for public feedback. In his letter, Clark said he will extend the consultation period, which was due to end this month, until early August.
Clark’s office did not respond to a email from The Narwhal with a list of questions about the policies. Others say his letter has offered some relief, but anxiety remains.
“I’m still astonished by the fact that they even tried to get away with this,” Sousa said. “While [the minister] has said their intent is not to go forward with this, I and many other planners, just based on the province’s track record so far, are wondering if they’re actually going to walk it back. Because it’s absolutely unprecedented to allow that much development on farmland.”
Straathof remains skeptical. While he appreciates having more time to understand the complex policy changes, the minister did not “explicitly clarify” how the language would change to ensure development would not be allowed, or kept to a minimum, on farmland. He is concerned the Ford government’s previous housing policies, like Bill 23, already reduce density targets and timelines to build. Multiple policies are forcing cities to sprawl into all available land, including farmland. “There’s a cascade of bad planning that could happen here,” he said.
But Brekveld is “very thankful” the government has reconsidered its proposal and extended the period of consultation. She hopes the final policy enables “good, wise, long-term planning decisions.” To her, and to the 38,000 farm families her organization represents, that means building more densely, in places where services and infrastructure already exist.
“When you build communities and cities up, when we review and renew our urban landscapes, we are actually protecting farmland as well,” she said. “We hope we can talk to the government about making sure urban settlements can stay within their footprint, or at least meet their intensity targets before they even consider expanding their boundaries into farmland.”
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the fragility of Canada’s domestic food supply chain and the need to protect it. Allowing housing development on agricultural land will only make matters worse.
“The tradeoff is losing land that feeds millions to house a few hundred,” Oxford County Warden Ryan said. “When we have to make policy compromises, let’s make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons.”
Updated June 20, 2023 at 4:25 p.m. ET: Due to an editing error, a line in this story was initially omitted. The story has been updated to include it.
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