Conference to Launch
Ontario Farmland Trust

June 2, 2004

Gathering to attract farmers, planners, academics,
politicians and conservationists

By Andrew Vowles

If you want to learn about dwindling agricultural lands in Ontario, you might start by looking around Toronto. In the greater Toronto area alone, more than 2,000 farms and 150,000 acres — about 18 per cent of Ontario's Class 1 farmland — were plowed under by urban development between 1976 and 1996, says Prof. Stew Hilts, chair of the Department of Land Resource Science (LRS).

But development has hardly spared the apparently wide-open countryside across southern Ontario, he says. More acreage is being lost or constricted by the growing number of rural severances being granted for building lots for individual homes or housing clusters — often built, ironically enough, to accommodate city dwellers looking for a taste of country living.

Stemming the loss of Ontario farmlands to sprawl and severance is the purpose of related initiatives being led this summer by U of G faculty and staff in the Ontario Agricultural College.

On June 28 and 29, U of G will play host to a farmland preservation conference, expected to attract farmers, planners, academics, politicians and conservationists to campus. The gathering will also serve as the springboard for the new Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT), an organization intended to help protect agricultural lands for farming.

“We feel the issue of farmland preservation in southern Ontario has been ignored, allowing urban expansion to continue unchecked,” says Hilts.

A land trust — a charitable, non-profit organization that holds or protects land in trust — is not a new idea. Such bodies have been used to protect woodlands, wetlands and other natural habitats, as well as heritage buildings. A notable example is the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

Although some Ontario nature trusts protect farmland within their projects, the OFT will focus on preserving farmland for agricultural production. Two regional farmland trusts exist in Canada: the Southern Alberta Land Trust Society and the Delta Farmland and Wildlife Trust near Vancouver. Hilts says the OFT will be Canada's first province-wide agricultural land trust.

One tool it will use to preserve farmland is a voluntary agricultural easement, a legal agreement that spells out permitted and restricted uses on a farm. Negotiated between the trust and the landowner, the agreement allows the owner to retain ownership, but ensures that the land remains free of development, even when it passes to different hands.

Occasionally, a farmland trust will buy a property to protect it, renting it out to farm operators. Farmland might also be donated to trusts.

Hilts says that, for all their potential importance as demonstration projects, easements can realistically protect only a few small and scattered properties. “Besides easements, we want to promote improved policies.”

He says the new farmland trust will push for improved land-use protection policies at municipal and provincial levels. Ontario's Planning Act, for example, provides only guidelines for land use rather than strict policies meant to protect agricultural lands from development. The trust will also promote education and research in farming and farmland preservation.

The idea for a trust came out of a 2002 forum on farmland preservation, which led to a steering committee headed by Hilts and funded by the Metcalf Charitable Foundation.

Hilts will co-chair this summer's conference, called “Protecting Farmland for Farmers,” along with Prof. Wayne Caldwell, School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD). Caldwell, who is also a farmer and planner in Huron County, is considered a leading expert on agricultural land-use planning.

“It's important that people see the land trust as one component of preserving farmland,” he says. “The most important protection will occur through sound policies, developed with provincial input but enacted locally.”

The conference, which will feature speakers from Canada, the United States and Australia, is being organized by U of G's Farmland Preservation Research Project (FPRP) and the OFT.

The FPRP is an interdisciplinary project of U of G's Centre for Land and Water Stewardship. Involving researchers from both the Department of Land Resource Science and SEDRD, the project documents farmland loss in southern Ontario, considers alternative policy options and increases awareness of farmland protection in the province.

“The increasingly rapid loss of farmland and encroachments on farming communities make it imperative to develop a long-term plan and vision of how Ontario's farmland will be used in the future,” says Melissa Watkins, research associate with the FPRP and acting executive director of the OFT (she has studied land trust issues for her master's degree at U of G).