Nothing is more important to farming than land preservation

Owen Roberts  in Yuma

Owen Roberts on location in Yuma.

(Yuma, Arizona) – From the desolate, moonscape-like look of the surroundings here, complete with a never-ending vista of foreboding mountains, scattered rock, tumbleweeds, cacti and dirt devils, it’s hard to imagine this part of the world is popularly called America’s winter salad bowl.

But it’s true. Farmers in the vast and sparse extreme southwestern part of Arizona have figured out how to turn their region into an agricultural oasis, using massive flood irrigation drawn from the Colorado River. That’s made it a highly productive region for commodities such as lettuce, spinach, kale, peppers, cantaloupe and tomatoes. They even grow wheat here.

Their harvests supply the frozen, hungry and highly populated north. And as California continues to struggle with a ceaseless drought, it’s salad days indeed for Yuma farmers.

Now, they’re not immune to water challenges. They need to be mindful it’s one resource that’s under more pressure than ever. They know huge state-to-state battles are being waged over water, especially for groundwater found in aquifers that know no state boundaries.

But for at least right now — and despite the swelling influx of snowbirds to dry and sunny Arizona – the Yuma area is moving ahead. And so are farmers in neighbouring Mexico, where protected agricultural areas and plastic greenhouses are ensuring Mexicans too can join in the winter salad-bowl phenomenon and beyond, and build job opportunities for those who would otherwise head to Yuma for farm work, or to Canada for seasonal temporary agricultural employment.

Statistics Canada says the total area of farms in Ontario fell by more than 636,000 acres between 2006 and 2011.

The key is, Arizona and Mexico have land. Without it, any conversation about feeding the planet, the country or even the neighbourhood, stops cold.

Every country and region that’s serious about food production has to make an unwavering commitment to farmland preservation. That’s especially true when there is so little of it to go around.

In Canada, we often talk dreamily about our wide, open spaces.

But we know Canada has limited prime agricultural land – basically, and with some important exceptions (e.g. the Peace River region in Alberta), the relatively narrow belt that borders the US is it. Just one per cent of all farmland is prime Class 1 land here.

Jeff Leal, Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, told me farmland preservation is a priority for his government. Ontario took an interesting step last year, instituting measures to open up the North, to capitalize on the natural advantages there for livestock production.

The next step is a program called Farms Forever, which the premier asked the minister to create, in her mandate letter to him in September.

This program will “help preserve the productive capacity of agricultural land close to major urban centres, support the local sourcing of food and strengthen Ontario’s agri-food sector,” says the minister.

Such a program is desperately needed, maybe more so than any other program in agriculture.

Farmland is said to be disappearing in Ontario to the tune of 350 acres per day. Statistics Canada says the total area of farms in Ontario fell by more than 636,000 acres between 2006 and 2011. That’s the most up-to-date data available, but really, has anything changed significantly since 2011 that would slow it down? These are shocking figures.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario have issued independent pleas asking for farmland to be preserved in the face of development.

The Christian farmers are fired up over a new transit corridor being planned from the Newmarket area north of Toronto, to the Milton area to the west of Toronto. It says the corridor will carve its way through the Greenbelt just south of the Niagara Escarpment, and claims 50 100-acre farms will be affected.

“It is regrettable that good farmland must be paved over to accommodate a rapidly growing urban community,” says spokesperson Lorne Small.

On the flip side, he says, projections for the next 20 years call for two million more people to come and live in the GTA. “This is many more consumers on our doorstep needing the products that farmers produce, many asking for local food,” he says.

True. But if farmland keeps disappearing, where will local food be grown?

For its part, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture notes four significant land use plans are under review – the growth plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the Greenbelt Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan and the Niagara Escarpment Plan.

It says its position remains that farmland preservation is critical…and so are policies to ensure that farmland can be worked sustainably.

“Preserving farmland, our most strategic resource, preserves the tools necessary for sustainable farming and ensures a local food source,” says executive member Mark Reusser.

The federation’s vice-president Keith Currie has been appointed one of six people on the provincial land use review committee. That puts a lot of weight on his shoulders. But it’s also great news that farmers will have direct representation, and a voice to try explaining agriculture’s impact on the economy, and why farmers need some flexibility to be competitive.

I’m sure committee members will look at models elsewhere, in places like Arizona that is knocking on Ontario’s door with its produce. And when it does, they’ll see the value of  — and need for — farmland preservation.

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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