by BETTER FARMING STAFF
When a University of Guelph researcher began to study the agriculture sector in Ontario’s Greenbelt, he expected to find differences from the overall provincial industry. But Harry Cummings, a professor with the university’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development had certain expectations.
With the region’s proximity to the GTA, he had anticipated — and found — declines in traditional agriculture, such as cash crops, dairy, hogs and cattle between 2001 and 2006. Farming in the Greenbelt area and near urban environments “is much more problematic because of various factors like the cost of land, the feeling from urban neighbours that you’re not quite doing what you should be doing,” he says.
But he also thought he would find growth in high value agriculture ventures. Instead ventures ranging from greenhouse production and organic agriculture to ginseng production were either in decline or growing at a significantly slower pace than in the rest of the province.
“Ginseng declined by 36 per cent in the Greenbelt; grew by 61 per cent in Ontario,” he says. “Potatoes down by 39 per cent in the Greenbelt; down by eight per cent in the province.” The number of certified organic farms increased two per cent between 2001 and 2006. Elsewhere in the province, they had increased 52 per cent over the same period.
Even the area’s top crop, alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures, declined over the five-year period. That this crop was “massively ahead” in terms of size from more traditional commodity crops “speaks to land going into more casual use, I think, less intensive use,” he says. The crop ranked second largest in acreage province-wide (along with corn for grain) during the same time period.
Moreover, while the average farm size is growing in Ontario, it shrank in the Greenbelt area. In 2006 the average Greenbelt farm was 149 acres, down two acres from the 2001 average. In contrast, the provincial farm size, 243 acres in 2006, had grown by seven acres since 2001.
Cummings wonders if this decline in size is because commercial agriculture “is largely fleeing” the Greenbelt and what is left are smaller farm parcels. “There are still some of those (larger farms) using Greenbelt lands but they’re fewer,” he says. “And those are the people who are really mad” because of all the regulation. “The Greenbelt is just another layer on top of it all.”
This week, Cummings released a report on the results of the second and final stage of the statistical analysis. Graduate student Sarah Megens and research associate Don Murray are the report co-authors. The first stage looked at livestock producers in the Greenbelt and found significant declines there, too.
Cummings says there have been two other studies done on agriculture within the Greenbelt to date. What makes his study different is the acquisition of census data that was customized to profile only the Greenbelt. He says the previous studies accessed only published census data and omitted information from Greenbelt locations within four counties: Dufferin, Bruce, Peterborough and Kawartha Lakes.
His study indicates that about 932,000 acres or 50 per cent of the Greenbelt’s 1.8 million acres is farmland. A 2009 report on the Friends of the Greenbelt website indicated 60 per cent of the Greenbelt was farmland.
Cummings says the decline in agriculture is not caused by the Greenbelt, which took effect in 2005. Rather, the study provides a benchmark to assess the effectiveness of the Greenbelt once data from the 2011 census becomes available.
“You need reliable estimates to be able to develop good policy.” He says his frustration with provincial agriculture policy not addressing the differences between agriculture taking place near urban environments and elsewhere in the province was a motivation for tackling the project. “If we don’t get policy right for these lands, we’re going to lose them.”
He says that he had applied for funding to broaden the study to include farm areas near other urban centres such as Ottawa, Hamilton and Waterloo but was rejected. He says the $25,000 he received for the study from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs was used to buy the customized census data and hire graduate students to help.
Provincial government websites say the Greenbelt’s intent is to protect land around the Greater Toronto Area from development, preserve farming and protect natural resources. The Greenbelt extends 325 kilometres from the eastern end of the Oak Ridges Moraine in the east to the Niagara River in the west and includes land protected by the Niagara Escarpment and Oak Ridges Moraine conservation plans. BF