Ontario land development is paving over five family farms each week in the province, according to the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).

This loss of farmland is concentrated on the urban rim of Ontario cities, where suburban sprawl meets farmland. Valuable soil from orchards and crop farms is turned into housing developments, new roads, highways and strip malls. With the population expected to grow to over 20 million by 2046, a 35.8-per-cent increase from 2020, is it possible to build new homes while preserving this valuable land?

Who is Buying Farmland?

There are undoubtedly local and international buyers purchasing land and maintaining it as farmland. But, there are also domestic and foreign speculators and developers buying farmland and converting it for commercial and residential uses. This demand has pushed the cost of farmland up and out of reach for many next-generation farmers.

A Senate committee report that focused on keeping farmland in the hands of farmers found that urban sprawl “is generally on the best agricultural land and plays a role in increasing farmland values.” This increase in price means that farmers cannot compete with developers when land is up for sale. According to data from Farm Credit Canada (FCC), farmland prices have increased from coast-to-coast by 132 per cent since 2007.

Ted Huffman, a research scientist with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Science and Technology Branch, saidbetween 1990 and 2010, about 3,000 hectares of cropland a year was converted to urban development.” So, this isn’t just an Ontario issue, nor is it just happening around larger urban areas such as the Greater Toronto Area and London. With more people leaving cities, small towns like Ilderton or Lucan, ON, are becoming bedroom communities, increasing the need for development and the potential loss of farmland.

The practice of favouring urban development over farmland preservation could threaten the country’s food sovereignty. According to the OFA President, Peggy Brekveld, “we have a choice to make – we need to decide if farmers are going to continue to grow food right here at home, for all Ontarians to enjoy, making a difference in our economy, our environment and our rural communities, or if that farmer is going to be feeding us from somewhere else.”

Impact of Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZOs)

Another threat, according to the OFA, is Minister’s Zoning Orders (MZO). The provincial government uses an MZO to override local councils to fast-track development. The provincial government rarely used these, but it has increased under Doug Ford’s leadership.

Rather than encroaching on farmland, some have been calling on the government to cut red tape in another area: building codes. The Ontario Home Builders’ Association wants an increase in all kinds of home construction, including vertical communities. Meanwhile, some existing residents and community groups have been pushing back against urban densification, making it even more challenging to build certain types of homes.

What is the Impact on Farmers?

Only five per cent of Ontario’s landscape is suited for agricultural use to grow food for human consumption. Once that land shifts to urban development, it cannot ever be reverted to farmland.

The Senate report on maintaining farmland urged for the “federal and provincial governments to work together to protect and promote the use of land for agricultural purposes.” But, there remains a need for new housing development, especially as immigration continues to boom.

Farmers near retirement have the option to cash out and sell their land to developers. According to a Windsor-area farmer, the profit outweighs what they could earn through farming.

David Connell, Associate Professor, Ecosystem Science and Management at the University of Northern British Columbia, says that farmers “get a higher price if they can convert (their land) to non-farm use.”

It is a double-edged sword. Farmers need to be close to urban areas to sell and transport their products, but their proximity drives the value and interest of developers. The GTA is a prime example, with much of the country’s best cropland around the highly populated area.

Hamilton: Agricultural Land vs. Residential Development Case Study

The push-and-pull between preserving agricultural land and the need for affordable housing is playing out in Hamilton. Environment Hamilton, a local environmental group, calls for Hamilton to freeze its urban boundaries.

The expansion is to accommodate the estimated 236,000 people set to arrive by 2051. The city is going through its first Growth Related Integrated Development Strategy (GRIDS) process and identified Elfrida, a rural area outside Hamilton, are a possible location for development.

Elfrida is prime agricultural land. Environmental groups are calling for the city to expand upwards, not outward. Developers have held parcels of land in the Elfrida area in anticipation and are ready to build residential developments with millions of dollars at stake. It is a microcosm of what is playing out across the province.

The Future of Farmland

Selling off farmland and the future of agriculture is a pressing question as 50 per cent of Canadian farmland is set to change hands over the next decade. With so many farmers set to retire and no family to take over the business, solutions to preserve farmland while ensuring that Canadians have affordable housing will continue to be debated and enacted in the years to come.