Canada’s Best Farmland Threatened by Growth

Ontario’s government has backed off its housing development plans for farmland adjacent to cities, at least for now. Several agricultural groups sent an open letter to officials last week in Toronto, with the message that proposed zoning changes would have catastrophic impacts on southern Ontario’s prime cropland and livestock operations.

Canada’s most populated province is facing severe housing shortages, and the Ontario government has proposed major zoning changes to meet a goal of building one-and-a-half million new homes over the next ten years. Those changes threaten some of Canada’s richest and most crop-diverse farmland.

About half of Canada’s Class 1 agricultural lands are in Southern Ontario, mostly in southwestern Ontario within the lower Great Lakes basin – the region east of Lake Huron and north of Lakes Erie and Ontario. And it is also home to nearly 40 percent of all Canadians. About 14 million people live within three hours of Toronto.

Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, Steve Clark, explained that Ontario is experiencing a severe housing crisis. Clark says that his Housing Supply Action Plan under Bill 97 requires the Ontario government to make aggressive moves to meet its new housing construction target over the next decade.

“Our core housing need is so much higher than every other province and territory. And the Housing Supply Action Plan that we’re promoting, a very aggressive plan to build one point five million homes over the next ten years, its going to cause us, as a government, to make some very bold decisions.”

But last week, several Ontario farm organizations expressed their concerns about zoning changes in Bill 97 and specifically with a proposal to allow up to three new residents per farm property. The open letter stated that those changes would fragment an already vulnerable agricultural land base and would almost certainly cripple future growth of livestock farming in Ontario.

The letter echoed sentiments by John Van Thoft, the elected provincial Opposition Ag critic and a dairy farmer, who addressed changes to Bill 97 in provincial parliament last month in Toronto.

“Ontario has specific minimum-distance separation standards that determine set-back distances between residential lots and livestock barns, for good reason. With minimum-distance separation, there will be virtually no space left for growth in the livestock sector. Is this the beginning of the end for animal agriculture in Ontario? “

A coalition of more than a dozen farm groups issued a joint letter urging the province to abandon its proposed changes to rural zoning and halt plans to aggressively expand housing developments onto southern Ontario’s already vulnerable farmland and livestock operations. Steve Reiser is a turkey farmer who lives in the Waterloo region on the edge of the Greater Toronto area.

“Farmers, like everyone, recognize that there’s a need to find places for people to live. But it shouldn’t be on farmland. It should be somewhere else.”

So, at least for now the message from Ontario’s farming community to off the land, was heard.