The 2021 Farmland Forum was held on March 25th, and we are happy to report that the event was a great success!
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we held the Forum online for the first time in 17 years! Despite the challenges of figuring out the details of an online event, hosting the Forum online actually allowed us to reach a wider audience than most years. We welcomed attendees from across the province, and even from across Canada! In total, we welcomed 246 people to the 2021 Farmland Forum.
Discussion at the Forum helped to highlight the importance of protecting farmland for the future. Our first keynote speaker, Kevin Eby, explored how competing provincial growth forecasts will impact the need for urban boundary expansions, and what that means for farmland protection. We learned that population trends and housing demands that were estimated in the past are largely inaccurate, and that this affects how effective provincial plans are at managing growth. Kevin explored planning techniques that may be used by municipalities to safeguard agricultural land, and gave examples from Waterloo Region on the above issues. Kevin also quoted Albert Einstein, “The significant problems that we are facing in the world today cannot be solved with the same thinking we were at when we created them”, reminding us that planning must continually shift approaches in order to address the changing needs of a growing population while also protecting the farmland and natural areas we all depend upon. This talk was certainly a great start to our day, and prompted the audience to ponder the future of planning in Ontario.
Our first panel of the day covered the topic of the provincial Agricultural System. With the 2020 review of the Provincial Policy Statement, the provincial government expanded the agricultural systems planning approach province-wide. Previously, the Agricultural System had been used in the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) where mapping from OMAFRA for it was available. While this planning approach has been extended province-wide, the mapping of the Agricultural System is still only available in the GGH. In this panel, two OMAFRA representatives, Jocelyn Beatty and John O’Neill spoke about what the Agricultural System is through the lens of provincial policies. We then heard from planners Jennifer Best and Chhavi Narula of York Region about how they have used the available mapping to strengthen the Region’s agricultural sector by protecting important agricultural infrastructure and promoting local food. We also heard from Scott Taylor, Senior Planner from Grey County, about how their region is working to protect farmland and agricultural resources using a systems approach even though they do not currently have provincial agricultural system mapping in their area. It was great to hear from all panelists about how using a systems approach to planning for agriculture can help strengthen regional agricultural sectors and protect farmland.
We also heard first-hand experiences from farmers across Ontario about the challenges they face from planning controls geared towards a 100-acre farm model. The landscape of the agricultural sector in Ontario has changed drastically from the 100-acre farm model that was common in the past, and the agricultural sector continues to evolve. Planning for agriculture using the 100-acre model can be problematic for farmers, and even hinder their operations. In this panel we heard from Peter Lambrick, who farms near urban areas in the GTA, John Fedorkow, a grape-grower in the Niagara region, Keith Currie, who farms large acreages in southwestern Ontario, and Stephanie Vanthoff, who is the OFA Member Service Representative in northern Ontario. Our panel was facilitated by Margaret Walton, an experienced planner who has spent her career in planning and agriculture, and is an OFT board member. Panelists spoke to the challenges they have faced from current planning controls, as well as challenges specific to their region. This panel sparked ample discussion about planning for the future of agriculture, and how policies could change to better support the varying needs of diverse agricultural businesses in Ontario.
Our final keynote speaker Victor Doyle reviewed the history of protections for farmland in provincial land use policy and spoke about the challenges farmland protection and conservation efforts face within these policies. He also spoke about how land-use planning policies that protect Ontario’s agricultural land will be vital to move the province forward post-pandemic, and how the current land-use planning policies must be improved. He touched on shortfalls in the Greenbelt Plan and the Growth Plan regarding density targets, population forecasts, and land protection, as well as limitations within our agricultural policies that put farmland and natural heritage features at risk. Victor emphasized that we have strategies that can work to fix the shortcomings he spoke of and protect farmland and natural areas, and that we need to continue to advocate for hard urban boundaries, more extensive public transport, and smarter growth models. Victor noted that “We can’t abandon farms at the edge of urban development, because there will always be another edge.” Victor’s talk was a great way to end our day, and left us all with a lot to ponder as we concluded our program.
Overall, the Forum helped to spark significant dialogue about how land use planning policies can improve to protect farmland, and the importance of protecting farmland now and for future generations. We also heard many suggestions for future topics for the Forum from attendees. Thank you to our wonderful sponsors, University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, The Grand River Agricultural Society, The Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, , Jackie Ramler – Raymond James, The Big Carrot, The Ontario Professional Planner’s Institute, and Earth to Table Bread Bar.
Thank you again to everyone who was able to attend, the discussion you brought was inspiring. To read more about the event, click here.