Preserving farmland for farming

It comes as no surprise that farmland in this part of Ontario is the most expensive in Canada, according to recent news stories.

This land surrounded by the Great Lakes is blessed with ample rainfall, rich soil, and a long growing season.

The problem is, land in an area that has a fairly pleasant climate, at least in comparison with the rest of the country, is prized by people other than farmers.

It would be convenient had our ancestors decided to build only on land that was no good for growing food, much like ancient communities where the ideal place for the big castle was on the most desolate outcropping of rock in the area.

But no, our predecessors liked businesses and industries a short distance (think horse and wagon) from the farms most of them lived on. Until recently, most people in Ontario, urban or rural, were employed in agriculture or at least had a vegetable garden and some chickens.

Our population grew, and kept growing. Our economy has changed dramatically. And so has agriculture. Never in the history of the world have so few people fed so many.

In addition to agriculture, Ontario now has manufacturing, retail, and everything in between. We want all of it, along with our homes, on the best farmland around.

Some things work well together, for example, a quiet residential neighbourhood with a school and convenience store.

Some do not – that quiet residential neighbourhood with a jet engine test centre.

The modern agricultural operations that feed our nation, have more in common with jet engines than what would be pictured in a Currier and Ives print.

An urbanite might imagine a couple of cows placidly munching on grass next to a pretty field, but reality is massive, noisy machines that can be in use half the night, depending on the season. And some of what gets sprayed on that pretty field does not smell pretty.

We have policies in place that are designed to allow what continues to be a key industry in this province to operate effectively. That means preventing legal battles between the people spraying their fields, and the folks in the new subdivision wearing clothespins on their noses.

While the pressure to build more housing to meet the present demand is intense, sacrificing some of our incredibly valuable farmland is shortsighted to the extreme.

Yes, most of this province’s large cities are located in the Great Lakes area, where the best farmland is. And yes, cities want to expand.

The fact to keep in mind is a residential building can be constructed anywhere, including Antarctica, if you have the finances and inclination to do so. The food to feed to people who live in that building must come from a very tiny percentage of the land on this planet – including the farmland we have around here.

Valuable? Without a doubt. Replaceable? No, also without a doubt.

The stench that erupted over removing land from Ontario’s greenbelt – whether the decision was made in the wrong way for the right reasons, the right way for the wrong reasons, or a bit of both – would put the average manure storage tank to shame. It is a clear signal that we need to do a better job of protecting the land that feeds us.

Instead of trying to decide which pieces of prime farmland to pave, we might take a look at what pieces of already paved land could be put to residential use.

Cities have shopping malls with half the stores sitting empty. They could be repurposed into excellent apartments – accessible, really close to shopping and already served by public transit. There are smaller communities with vacant public, commercial and industrial buildings. There are properties where a conventional house would be cramped, but a couple of tiny homes would fit nicely.

There are a million possibilities when it comes to housing, as long as we dispense with the notion that the only suitable units are large, fully-detached, single-family dwellings.

There is only one possibility when it comes to farmland – protect it for farming.