Ontario farmers group discuss farmland protection and housing concerns

As prices for land escalate under pressure from urban housing and business needs, concerns among farmers are growing that young farmers are being priced out of the market. Shutterstock

NORTHEASTERN ONTARIO—Farmland protection and housing are being affected throughout Ontario, including on Manitoulin Island, by burgeoning prices for all properties, land development for business rather than farming, and fewer people taking up farming as a profession.

“I know of three farm properties that were sold on Manitoulin Island over the past two years for over $1 million each,” Bonita Mercer told members of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario (CFFO) at their annual Northeastern Ontario District meeting last week. “It’s definitely changing the tax base and some can’t afford their own home.” Ms. Mercer is a Monetville farmer who also owns a farm and property on Manitoulin Island.

All issues discussed during the meeting, including the issue of farmland protection and housing, will be raised by CFFO with candidates of all three parties in the upcoming provincial elections.

Five main topics were on the agenda for policy making, including carbon pricing and trading; farmland protection and housing; farm labour; environmental stewardship; and food security.

Using a series of graphs, meeting moderator Suzanne Armstrong of CFFO illustrated a key fact: over the last 35 years, an estimated 2.8 million acres of agricultural land (18 percent) has been lost to non-agricultural uses. During the period from 1996 to 2016, an estimated 175 acres was lost every day to urban development.

“As the figures show, farmland loss is significant in each region in Ontario,” Ms. Armstrong said. “But what will people eat if there is no land to produce food on?”

West Nipissing has lost a lot of farmland to development, Ms. Mercer said. Other than her farm, there is only one other small cow-calf farm operation in the area. “There is lots of development allowed for subdivisions. We are seeing more farmers selling lots and people coming up from southern Ontario to live.”

Land and homes on Manitoulin have also been selling fast over the past two years, she added. “You better not sell your property unless you already have another place.”

Ontario’s population grew by 950,000 over the last five years and builders couldn’t keep up, said Ms. Armstrong. One million homes will be needed in the next 10 years to meet that need, but 83 percent of buyers can’t afford an average resale home. Resale home prices have risen eight to nine percent while incomes have only increased two percent per year.

The Kingston area is being impacted by people moving up from Toronto, said Vic Schamehorn. The price of property and housing there has gone up about 40 percent in the last year, he said. “And in Prince Edward County, the well-to-dos are coming in and buying up all the property, including farming property. It used to be a farming area but now it is more of a holiday area.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to more people in central Ontario and southwestern Ontario working online, making it easier for urbanites to transition to rural living.

“Property is being broken up into lots with land severances,” said Ray Ford. “People in southern Ontario are cashing out their farms and coming to the North where they’re buying farm properties for recreational use. It is an issue. If you’re in the cow-calf business and looking for land, it is getting a lot more difficult in the North.”

“Farmers who are retiring or getting out of the business are selling their properties and new housing is being put up,” added Brenda Schamehorn. “Lands that in the past had been farmed are no longer being farmed, and the significant increase in property values is affecting us.”

Alex Oosterhof said this is not a real concern in his area near Brockville and pointed out that in southern Ontario, new vineyards are being developed all the time. He did agree that housing is a problem on everyone’s agenda.

There are positive aspects to this rural migration, as Mr. Oosteroff pointed out. Not many years ago, the local high school in the Elgin-Hastings-Northwood area faced closure because of decreasing population, but that changed as more people moved into the area. The land there was too hard to farm, he said. “It was very marginal land” for agriculture.

“Most municipal politicians do not have a farm background and don’t see the value of maintaining farmland,” Mr. Ford said. “This is a long-time concern of farmers in Parry Sound or Grey County, that farmland is being purchased for recreational use.”

“Our municipalities need money for infrastructure, to cover their costs,” said Mr. Schamehorn.

How to engage development where it is good and discourage development where it shouldn’t is an important consideration. “All of this affects farming,” said Ms. Armstrong. “Farmland is not making towns much (in terms of) money from taxes, but if you put 100 homes in an area, municipalities benefit from that.”

She wondered if more restrictions on land severances would help. “In Peterborough they have green belts. Is zoning a tool that can be used to prevent farm properties from being lost?” she asked.

“Rural zoning is not doing much to protect farmland,” Mr. Ford said. “We should be thinking about writing letters on behalf of our districts to try to make them understand the importance of maintaining farmland.”

Mr. Oosteroff wondered if it would be helpful if there should be a percentage of farmland versus people. “If we have a population of 100,000 people, we need so many acres of productive farmland,” he suggested. “They don’t have a percentage being left for food production. Ontario is producing food for Ontario and the world. That’s why it’s so important to protect it.”

“What is the solution?” CFFO President Ed Scharringa asked. “We all know values are going up. Is there anything we can do?”

“Maybe we need to do more advocating on behalf of our members and find more ways to transition the farm,” Mr. Scharringa suggested.

Passing on skill sets from generation to generation is another challenge, and with rising land and housing costs, it’s not economically viable for young people to begin farming.

“If farmers don’t have land to work and produce food on, and young people are not learning the skills of farming, it is unsustainable,” said Mr. Schamehorn. “I don’t have anybody behind me getting started and we’re losing the ability to farm, the generations who built and settled the land.

One suggestion was creating opportunities for people who want to grow food on their land through some sort of government grant program.

Food consumers make up 98 percent of the population, pointed out Paul Bootsma, CFFO field services manager. “More and more people don’t understand farming and food production as fields are turned over to housing. As long as there’s food in grocery stores, our customers won’t be concerned with food security. Agriculture needs to connect with our consumers. They see 200 acres in a field but don’t connect this to food production. If a young couple is going past, they need to know they are eating products from that field. Consumers need to know where their food is coming from.”

One member pointed out that there is a lot of prepackaged food on store shelves. He didn’t see food security as a problem but rather affordability, as packaged food is more affordable.

“Maybe we need to get back to the basics,” Mr. Schamehorn said. “Family units have changed. They’re no long well-suited to show the next generation how to properly prepare food.”

Labour relations, regulations and transportation were also seen as concerns. One member works summers at a local abattoir processing chickens. He thinks there aren’t as many small abattoirs around as there should be, largely due to “heavy regulations and labour.” It would be good, he said, if government lifted some of those regulations. “They discourage a lot of small butchers.”

CFFO has been advocating for reduced red tape and regulations for small abattoirs, Ms. Armstrong said.

“We’ve called on the minister and they’re well aware,” said Mr. Scharringa. “Lots of times, Minister Lisa Thompson has promised it will be done. Enough talk, let’s see some action.”

“This has been a terrific conversation,” Mr. Bootsma concluded. “It will all be put together as we go through all the districts and we will have a toolkit prepared to present to candidates in the provincial election, once the election is called.”