Farming on the Urban Fringe

When farmers’ fields border urban and suburban developments, how can they stand their ground and be good neighbours?

By Jackie Clark

We often talk about agricultural and rural issues as if they’re completely separate from urban living. However, many farmers live and farm close to city centers and heavy residential developments.

With population growth and sprawl ever apparent, farmers across Ontario are faced with the challenges of producing crops and managing livestock on a mosaic landscape.

This month, Better Farming connected with three such farmers, as well as staff from York and Peel Regions, who work to address agricultural issues in the planning and policy-making processes in their respective areas.

Larry Dyck grows corn, soybeans, wheat as well as some dry beans and buckwheat in the Niagara Region, from St. Catharines to Grimsby.

He produces dairy and raises laying hens with his son, daughter and his father. They also work together to raise crops and Eisses runs a grain elevator in Oro-Medonte. He is also on the town council in Innisfil.

Mathew McQuillen grows corn and soybeans on the south side of Caledon, with land near Brampton that’s surrounded by homes.

Interacting with neighbours

The road is one place where farmers and non-farming residents frequently interact.

“It’s challenging sometimes moving equipment and dealing with traffic,” says McQuillen.

Many drivers are reasonable, but it only takes one reckless driver to create a dangerous situation around farm equipment.

“I tell my (employees) if you’re going down the road with a piece of farm equipment, always use your whole lane. Even if there’s a shoulder where you could move over and let people go by,” he explains. Once cars start to pass, it can be dangerous for both passing cars and farm equipment to get back into the lane.

Eisses also faces traffic challenges, particularly because “a lot of Innisfil is a commuter-based town,” he explains.

For Dyck, the issue isn’t just the volume of cars, but the “pretty, picturesque, narrow country roads,” he says. Farm equipment tends to take up the whole road.

“Another challenge is dumping. We get a lot of dumping in our field entrances,” says McQuillen. Trespassing also occurs.

“Kids come (out) from the city and they want to off-road,” he explains. “We try to put gates or logs or rocks at our field entrances.”

Then, “when you want to get into that field to do something, you have to send a loader down to move the log or rock,” he adds. “The town is pretty good about coming to pick up dumped garbage, but sometimes we have to do it ourselves. Just a week or two ago somebody dumped a whole dump truck load of renovation stuff, nails, and drywall.”

In Eisses’s unique position as both farmer and council member, he’s able to act in some situations.

Innisfil “has a lot of problems with fireworks lately. There are bylaws but they’re not being followed at all and it seems like every weekend people are choosing to light them off,” he explains.

In the spring, fireworks spooked a cow and the animal ran into a gate and broke its leg, resulting in the need for it to be euthanized.

“As a councillor, I was able to bring a notice of motion requesting to change the bylaw,” he explains. He started “the discussion about the fireworks bylaw.

“It hasn’t been totally resolved yet because of the challenges of enforcement, but it was interesting that I could react to something that had affected us on the farm.”

In the Niagara Region “I’m the lowest value producer,” says Dyck. “But being the lowest value producer I probably still take some of the highest risks.”

For example, Dyck could run into trouble if herbicides used on his crops damage the flower gardens of residents, or greenhouse or orchard crops grown by other producers.

view of houses backing onto farmer's field
    strickke/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

“It’s just a reality of having lots of people around. People want to be notified if the sprayer is in the field that’s literally 40 feet from their back deck. That back deck went in long after we were farming,” he explains. “They see the sprayer and they think horrible thoughts and all of a sudden it’s being splashed across the local community Facebook page.”

Agronomic decisions

Interactions with neighbours can alter how some farmers manage crops.

“Old herbicides – like 2,4-D, dicamba, MCPA – I simply don’t use them anywhere,” Dyck explains. Sometimes he’s spraying “right next to a row of houses. So, we just make a practice not to use certain herbicides.”

He’s been adopting “cover crops and planting green. That has minimized the dust coming off planting and tillage operations,” says Dyck. “We can plant right beside someone having a backyard barbeque and we don’t blow a bunch of dust over them; that’s a benefit I hadn’t expected.”

Landlords can also put stipulations on agronomic management.

“Part of the problem is most of the farmland isn’t owned by farmers anymore,” Eisses explains. “As farmland isn’t owned by farmers, it changes things. Decisions are being made that aren’t necessarily agricultural decisions.”

man looking across farm field at hotel and houses
    strickke/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

Developers or speculators often “put restrictions on what we can do on the land,” he says. “They don’t want anything that would promote habitat for bobolink (birds) or that would interfere with their long-term goals. We can’t grow wheat, we can’t grow hay and for a dairy farm, that’s a pretty valuable rotation for the health of our farms.”

McQuillen has a similar experience.

“The land here is worth quite a bit of money. Most people that we rent from are not retired farmers, they’re holding companies or investment groups,” says McQuillen.

“Trying to have a personal relationship with the landowner for us to get some security to invest in the land … is a challenge. You can never get in touch with the actual owners, or often it’s a group.”

Many landowners “don’t even want us to plant wheat or hay because they’re worried about nesting birds,” says McQuillen.

“They’re investing a lot of money into this land with one goal and that’s to flip it for more money. So, they want to get it zoned, they want the approvals, so anything with red tape in their way is not what they want.”

The developers actively discourage biodiversity or wildlife habitat, lest those come up in environmental assessments that will be conducted before the land is approved for development.

“They don’t want trees and they don’t want watercourses because that could slow them down with their zoning,” says McQuillen. “Even on a year where you would summer-fallow the ground or a chunk of land that’s too wet to plant, you’ve got to come back and at least do some tillage to keep any weeds down.”

However, farmers know that biodiversity can improve the productivity of a crop rotation, he explains.

“You’ve got to balance agronomics with economics. We know what’s good for the land and proper crop rotation and building up pH levels and macronutrient levels. But you’ve got to be careful too because sometimes it can take you a decade to build a farm up to where you want it to be, and sometimes you may not have a decade,” he adds.

Dyck, however, is in a position where he hasn’t run into landlords specifying what he can and can’t grow.

“I’m not on a lot of development-potential lands; part of that might be because we’re locked into the Greenbelt,” he explains.

The advantages

Though many challenges exist, there are some benefits to farming close to urban areas.

Number one is probably land value, says McQuillen.

Also, “we can access supplies a little bit easier,” he adds. Mechanics are close by as well.

“You’ve got lots of options for lunch and coffee’s close,” he adds.

Dyck agrees.

It’s helpful “being right close to the amenities of life; we don’t have to drive an hour to do our banking,” he says. “I have a fantastic hardware store about four minutes from my place and if I ever moved away boy, would I miss them.”

Grain markets are also nearby.

“I’ve got the port of Hamilton with three different truck unloading facilities just 30 minutes away and Port Colborne is also only 30 minutes away, with one or two boat loading facilities,” he explains. Many opportunities also exist for additional income, both on and off the farm.

“If the farm wanted to move into something agri-tourism or direct marketing related, we’re in a phenomenal location to do that,” says Dyck.

McQuillen and his family “plow snow in the wintertime, so there are good opportunities for that, being so close.”

Regional perspective

Regional and municipal governments in areas with varied land use must balance priorities in their planning and policy-making.

“Agricultural and rural areas are important components of the York Region’s fabric that support a vibrant agricultural community and contribute to the economic well-being of the Region,” says Teresa Cline, climate change program manager for York Region. “The Regional Official Plan policies establish the agricultural and rural designations and identify permitted uses within these areas. Local municipal official plans support the implementation of this policy framework.

“Planning and economic development staff at York Region have developed relationships with representatives of the agricultural and farming communities through the York Region Agriculture and Agri-Food Advisory Committee, and stakeholder and public engagement on planning matters,” she explains.

“Feedback received from the agricultural and farming communities will continue to be considered through the Municipal Comprehensive Review and Official Plan Update,” she adds.

A representative from Peel Region, another area with farmland juxtaposed with suburban and rural expanses, had similar comments.

“Agricultural land is an important factor in planning decisions in Peel,” Mark Head says. He’s the manager of research and analysis for planning and development services in Peel Region.

“The prosperity and sustainability of the agricultural sector are important to the economy of Peel and to maintaining the character of the rural community,” he explains. “Peel Region is updating its planning direction for agriculture in the Region of Peel Official Plan (ROP), in line with provincial direction and to reflect agriculture’s continued importance to Peel.”

More specifically, Peel “is taking an agricultural system approach to planning for agriculture, recognizing that the agricultural system in Peel is part of a broader agricultural system that extends across the greater Golden Horseshoe and beyond. This approach recognizes that the agricultural system consists of a continuous and productive land base plus a complementary network of agri-food businesses, services and infrastructure, and farmers,” he adds.

To protect prime agricultural land from negative impacts of development, policies in the region and local municipalities require “agricultural impact assessments or equivalent studies (e.g., environmental assessments) be prepared to address impacts in both land use planning decisions and infrastructure planning,” Head says.

Peel Region representatives connect with the farming community through groups like the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance and Peel Agricultural Advisory Working Group.

“In addition, ROP Federation of Agriculture to discuss proposed Regional Official Plan policies and mapping,” Head adds.

Working with officials

Working with the town “is a mixed bag. For the most part they’re pretty good,” says McQuillen. “It’s just a lot of bureaucracy.”

In his area, some farmers have run into trouble with the Ministry of Transportation “cracking down on trucks on non-truck roads,” he explains.

“For a farm plated vehicle, you have no real option to get to the field or out of the field to the elevator without using those roads, because the fields are on (them). I haven’t had to deal with that, but a couple of our customers have gotten tickets and there was no leniency from the police officer because they don’t really understand.”

Eisses sees policy processes from both sides.

“At the councillor level we’re often involved in strategic planning sessions and they review what people like about Innisfil,” he explains.

“It’s interesting that when you ask people as a whole, they like the fact that we have a rural aspect to the town. But there are all these challenges that come with that.”

Theoretically, “good planning would tell you that you put your farms in one place and you put your cities and urban areas in another place, and mixing them is not always the best idea,” he adds.

For the most part, people want to preserve farmland, he says. However, sometimes that can come into conflict with other development goals, or policies that impact farming residents.

“When I bring a perspective to those issues, it carries some weight. I think it has changed the course of the discussion,” Eisses says.

For example, recently, non-farming residents brought forward concerns about the Town controlling invasive Phragmites with glyphosate, he explains.

“As farmers, we’re very familiar with glyphosate and we rely on it, especially the type of farming we’re trying to do with conservation tillage,” he says. “I was trying to bring agriculture’s perspective about how this could be a useful tool ... and it is less toxic than alternatives.”

Farmers “just seem to be a little bit behind in the messaging because there seem to be groups out there that are ahead of us and have stronger voices,” he adds. Another meeting focused on climate change resilience and town staff brought up changing farming practices.

Meanwhile, the agriculture community knows that many farmers are working consistently to improve their methods and sequester carbon, Eisses says.

“I challenged it a little bit. I said I think it’s a bit of overreach; we’ve got the federal government and provincial government all having policies around agriculture, now (we) as a municipality think we need to have a say in that too,” he explains. “It’s becoming more challenging to bring our perspective forward. When I do, I think it’s valued, but it’s hard to see how far it goes.”

Kevin Eisses
    Kevin Eisses photo

Rural and agricultural representation in municipal councils is important. Though being a farmer is demanding, Eisses works hard to do both.

“It’s a challenge to fit it all in for sure,” he says. “When I ran, I told the rest of council that because of my day job I would be limited in the amount of committee work I would be doing and they were fine.

“They accepted that. They’ve been accommodating in having me there to be able to contribute.”

He’s been able to participate in a new development plan, called the Orbit. Innisfil council wanted to develop without losing community character and without needless sprawl into farmland, so a new GO station will be the hub, with a circle of intensive development around it.

The council is also discussing what preserving farmland outside of the Orbit will look like, Eisses explains. “It’s exciting to get in at the start and try to envision what agriculture could look like as this development gets made.”

What’s to come

In the future, “we know we’re going to be losing land – a lot of our rented land – so I’m always actively trying to build relationships with other (landowners),” says McQuillen. He has a young son and daughter and imagines they may be taking over the farm in another 20 years.

“Land is changing hands around here, you’ve kind of got to know the right people and have close relationships with real estate agents and developers,” he explains.

Landlords appreciate some value-added activities he offers.

“It’s not always about paying top dollar rent, they don’t necessarily care about that extra $50 per acre, but if you do some extra things like take some trees down,” potential developers appreciate it, he adds.

The price of farmland near urban centers will likely have an impact on land use in the future.

Often, farmers could sell one acre near town and purchase many more acres with the same amount in a more rural setting, Eisses says. So, “the type of agriculture that you have close to an urban environment is going to change over time.”

If the land is still zoned for agriculture, “what fills that void?” Eisses asks.

It may be higher-value crops or agri-tourism targeted operations. Farming near the city “has its challenges, but we are where we are and there haven’t been problems big enough to force us to move,” says Dyck.

“About 25 years ago, I would have thought by now it would have been built up, and probably if the Greenbelt hadn’t come in, it would be.”

The future of his land likely depends on the continued protections that the Greenbelt offers.

So, as these three farmers demonstrate, both the present challenges and future considerations of farmland near urban areas are highly dependent on the specific context of the land base. BF

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