July 15, 2024

The State of Canada’s Farmland: An Overview

a ruined barn on a grassy field surrounded by groomed farmland

Canada’s Farmland in Decline: Losing 3 Farms Daily

In response to the province’s housing crisis, the Ontario government has decided to sacrifice portions of the Greenbelt for development purposes. However, a recent united statement by a group of farmers has successfully halted one specific proposal outlined in Bill 97. This proposal aimed to introduce new types of residential and urban development on valuable farmland, but its progress has been effectively halted by the collective efforts of the farmers.

Highlighting the significance of Ontario’s abundant and fertile farmland, a recent statement emphasizes concerns over policy changes that pose a significant threat to the sustainability of this valuable land and the food system it supports. The statement underscores the need to protect and preserve Ontario’s farmland to ensure a secure and resilient food supply.

Peggy Brekveld, President of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) and the leading signatory of the joint statement, has been a vocal critic of farmland development. Brekveld highlighted concerning statistics from the Census of Agriculture, revealing the alarming rate at which Canada’s farmland is diminishing. She emphasized that Ontario alone is losing an average of nine family farms every week, emphasizing the urgent need for action to protect agricultural lands.

Applying the same calculation, it can be estimated that Canada has experienced a loss equivalent to seven small farms per day over the course of 20 years. The availability of arable land, which is land suitable for cultivating crops, is becoming increasingly limited in Canada.

The Census of Agriculture has revealed a consistent decline in total farm area across all provinces over several decades. This trend highlights the pressing need to address the preservation and sustainable use of agricultural land in the country.

Over the past two decades, there has been an eight percent decrease in the total reported area of farmland in Canada, declining from 68 million hectares in 2001 to 62 million hectares in 2021. While urban development is a contributing factor, it is important to consider whether it solely accounts for the loss of millions of hectares of farmland in the country.

Canada lost 7 small farms a day for 20 years
Canada lost 7 small farms a day for 20 years

CBC News has analyzed the data and presented it in six charts to provide insights into the current state of Canada’s precious national resource and its implications for the future. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s joint statement expressed opposition to the introduction of new housing developments in “prime agricultural areas.” These areas are classified by Canada’s Land Inventory as having soil with “moderate-to-no limitations for agriculture.”

However, the Census of Agriculture does not capture data on soil quality. It relies on voluntary responses from farmers, which can introduce human error and inconsistencies in self-classification and area reporting. Alternative datasets provide a slightly different perspective on the state of Canada’s agricultural landscape, but the overall downward trend remains evident.

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) researchers have employed diverse methods, including geospatial analysis, to determine that the classified “cropland” area in Canada was 46 million hectares in 2021. This reflects a seven percent decline from 50 million hectares in 2001.

Reasons for conversion

The majority of arable land converted to urban settlements in Canada can be attributed to its cities. According to reports from Statistics Canada, comparing surveys from 1971 to 2011, an estimated 642,100 hectares of agricultural land were lost to new settlements around the country’s largest metropolitan areas.

The Golden Horseshoe area around Toronto experienced the largest conversion of arable land to settlement. Over a 40-year period, approximately 85 percent of all urban development in the Golden Horseshoe was constructed on previously fertile agricultural land.

Conversion of arable land to settlement happens most near cities

In contrast, the loss of prime land around cities in British Columbia (B.C.) was relatively less due to provincial land protections implemented in 1973. However, the amount lost still accounted for 26 percent of the initially available prime land in B.C.

According to Darrel Cerkowniak, a physical scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, certain types of land conversion pose challenges in the data collection process. For instance, when farmers implement crop rotations, wooded areas previously utilized for grazing may be categorized as forests in the census. Moreover, the census does not provide specific information on land that was previously leased from the Crown, converted into public parks, or designated as treaty land.

According to AAFC, certain arable land may also undergo abandonment, flooding, or re-naturalization. However, land conversion is only a partial explanation for the reported loss. Some farmers suggest that another factor might be at play.

The issue of consolidation

The average Canadian farm is getting bigger

In addition to the decrease in farm area, there has been a more significant decline in the number of individual farms across most provinces, with a 23 percent decrease over the past 20 years. However, during the same period, the average size of farms has increased. In 2001, the average Canadian farm measured 274 hectares, while by 2021, it had grown to 327 hectares.

Over the course of 20 years, using the updated average size, Canada has effectively lost approximately three entire farms per day. Analysis of census data reveals a trend where farmers are utilizing more of their fallow, pasture, and “other” land for production, resulting in fewer farmers managing a greater portion of the diminishing farmland with increased efficiency.

More production on less land

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has released a report indicating that Canadian farmland is increasingly being consolidated into larger corporate entities. This concentration is particularly pronounced in the Prairie provinces, namely Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, which collectively account for 70 percent of the country’s farmland.

According to data from 2016, a small percentage of giant Prairie farms, comprising only six percent of all farms, possessed nearly one-third of the total farmland and generated a third of the revenues and net income. Nettie Wiebe, an organic farmer and ethics professor at the University of Saskatchewan, expressed concern over the disappearance of land due to urban sprawl in her region. She also suggested that the increasing ownership by investors could contribute to the underreporting of farmland.

According to Wiebe, the census data does not accurately reflect the actual productivity of farmland as it is submitted to a corporate office in Toronto, where it becomes part of an investment portfolio. The rising prices of farmland can be attributed to factors such as low interest rates, increased speculation, and heightened competition. The Farm Credit Canada (FCC) report indicated that the average price per hectare has quadrupled over a 20-year period.

The price of Canadian farmland has soared

The CCPA report highlights that there is a shift from equitable landholding to concentrated control of farmland, making it increasingly challenging for young Canadians to pursue farming as a career choice. The combination of rising prices and an aging population has resulted in more passive ownership of land, according to Wiebe.

Corporate investors, unlike individual farmers, are not burdened with concerns about the actual productivity of the land and whether it can generate sufficient income to meet financial obligations. Nettie Wiebe explains that corporate investors operate in a more speculative manner, detached from the direct impact of productive capacity on their financial well-being.

According to Wiebe, the consolidation and intensive farming practices currently being implemented will lead to the degradation of arable land beyond its usable state. She warns that the excessive use of chemicals and extraction of resources will have long-term ecological consequences that cannot be ignored.

The ecological price

Apart from its role in food production, agriculture plays a crucial role in mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon in vegetation and soil. The Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) reports that 10 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions originate from crop and livestock production. However, with the intensification of production and the diminishing availability of farmland, there are fewer opportunities for the land to absorb these emissions.

The loss of farmland to urban sprawl has long-lasting consequences as the converted land is unlikely to regain its agricultural value. This process, known as “sealing,” significantly diminishes the soil’s capacity for carbon capture, groundwater replenishment, and providing habitat for wildlife.

Conversely, as farmland expands, it encroaches upon natural wetlands and forests. According to data from AAFC, the conversion of forest land into cropland has occurred at a faster pace than the conversion of cropland into urban settlements over the past two decades.

Forest is becoming cropland faster than cropland is becoming settlements

Wiebe noted that the intensified production on a reduced land area has significant implications for the price, variety, and sustainability of agricultural products that farmers can cultivate.

According to Wiebe, the loss of land has cultural implications that are equally significant. She emphasized that land is not merely a resource, but also a place of residence, roots, and community. While she expressed concerns about the diminishing land and the accompanying transformations, she maintained a sense of optimism.

Wiebe expressed the belief that there is much to be gained from learning, innovating, and gaining a deeper understanding of the current situation. She observed that a new generation of young people is emerging who are willing to engage critically with the prevailing direction and seek new solutions.

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