Animal Agriculture Shrinking in Ontario's Greenbelt, Study Finds

December 18, 2009 - News Release

Animal agriculture is disappearing even more rapidly in Ontario's protected greenbelt, according to a first-ever study by University of Guelph researchers.

Province-wide, traditional livestock operations such as dairy, beef and hogs have experienced a decline since 2001. But the trend is far more dramatic in the greenbelt than anywhere else in Ontario, the study found.

The research by Prof. Harry Cummings of the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development and graduate students Sarah Megens and Sandra Moreau appears in a research paper entitled “A Profile of the Agricultural Economy in Ontario’s Greenbelt.”

The researchers compared agricultural census data from 2001 and 2006 for the greenbelt. Their results were drawn from a database developed by Statistics Canada that let them analyze census data from only farms and farm parcels within the greenbelt. Their study consists of the only custom-tabulated agricultural census results for the 1.8-million acres of protected green space.

“Ontario’s greenbelt was supposed to preserve farmland and support agriculture,” said Cummings, graduate co-ordinator for U of G’s rural planning program. “But for livestock farmers, that doesn’t appear to be the case.”

For example, the number of dairy farms decreased by 28 per cent in the greenbelt, compared to 23 per cent province-wide. Greenbelt beef farm numbers declined by 24 per cent, compared to 13 per cent across Ontario. And hog farms, which fell by 11 per cent provincially, experienced a 27- per-cent reduction in the greenbelt.

Overall, the number of farms in the greenbelt decreased by seven per cent between 2001 and 2006 — three per cent higher than the provincial decline.

In addition, the greenbelt failed to register in niche markets as well. For example, sheep and goat farms grew 34 per cent in Ontario between 2001 and 2006. But they declined by eight per cent in the greenbelt. Poultry and egg farms grew five per cent across the province during that time. However, they fell by 19 per cent in the greenbelt.

“These trends, and the difference in animal population change within the greenbelt compared to the province, raise a number of interesting questions regarding the viability of animal production in close proximity to a major urban area,” Cummings said.

He said farm consolidation and retirement account for some of the decreasing farm numbers. But in nine focus groups led by the researchers as part of the study, farmers said they were generally unhappy with the lack of planning policy around the greenbelt.

One area in which the greenbelt experienced growth was the “other animal production” category. It includes farms for horses and ponies, rabbits, alpacas, bison, wild boars and other animals, as well as bees. But this growth was not as significant as in the rest of the province. The greenbelt experienced a five-per-cent increase in the number of horses and ponies between 2001 and 2006, but it was outpaced by the province as a whole with a 17-per-cent increase during the same period.

“There is some indication that the greenbelt area has unique characteristics that influence the type and scale of production within its boundaries. We need to look deeper to fully understand the causes and implications of this change,” Cummings said.

The research was sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Prof. Harry Cummings
School of Environmental Design & Rural Development
519 824-4120, Ext. 53637

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University of Guelph
50 Stone Road East
Guelph, Ontario, N1G 2W1