Slicing up farmland not the answer to a housing crisis, says OFA

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Tucked into the Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ Bill 97 is a proposed change to severance allowances of farmland that the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) says could make siting of livestock farms much more difficulty.

What’s more, the bill carves out increased power for Ministerial Zoning Orders in the name of housing; however, Peggy Brekveld, president of the OFA, says this too could prove detrimental to farmland preservation.

“OFA agrees that we need to build more houses, but we’re saying only 5 per cent of the province is arable land, and we need to protect that and grow food for Ontario, Canada, and the world,” Brekveld says.

Bill 97 sets out an allowance for up to three severances to be made on each piece of farmland, regardless of farmland size.

The bill, as written, could potentially take 145,000 acres of farmland out of food production, according to estimates by Wayne Caldwell, professor with the University of Guelph’s Rural Planning and Development department.

Some potential impacts of this are apparent — more small lots in rural areas means more traffic sharing roads with farm equipment, and more run-ins between neighbours over farm smells, sounds, and practices.

But more concerning, says Brekveld, is the potential issue these severances may create over water quality protection and siting of new livestock operations or infrastructure.

“In Ontario, we have minimum distance separation calculations. And they were created for in response to the Walkerton crisis. [The minimum distances] are there to protect both farmers and homeowners from risks to our water supply,” she says. (more below)

If all of these severances are allowed to happen, the minimum distance separation will still dictate where you can build either new livestock facilities or expand livestock facilities, including barn, manure storage, and more. Brekveld says it could mean that siting would be highly limited and perhaps relegated to less than ideal areas — meaning the option is eliminated completely.

The addition of zoning powers could mean that more land may be developed without the requirement of  agricultural impact assessments, meaning there will be less protection for specialty crop areas and Class 1, 2, and 3 soils.

Brekveld stresses that OFA supports housing as a priority for the province, but says that there is already land available to build homes. She adds that now is the time to think long-term and strategically so that we are considering not just where to build homes, but how the province will feed its citizens, too.

The bill is currently at committee, and Brekveld says that those concerned about the bill can contact their MPP and share their thoughts or concerns.

“I really do hope that citizens will call up their MPP and say, ‘You know what, this isn’t healthy for the agricultural industry.’ I would love to see, if you feel comfortable to send a letter; putting it in writing is even stronger. And certainly push the issue that agriculture matters. Farms and food forever. That’s not just the saying, that’s a lifeline for everybody,” she says.

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