In recent years, the tides of change have swept through the agricultural sector in Ontario, ushering in promising horizons for sustainable farming practices. This is exemplified by the federal and provincial governments’ $3.5 billion Sustainable Canadian Agricultural Partnership agreement, the Weston Foundation’s $10 million Soil Health Initiative, and several other similar grant programs. These funding initiatives amplify the urgent call to expand sustainable, ecologically based best management practices (BMPs), lighting the path for a greener, more prosperous future. However, there remains a glaring gap, one that threatens to undermine all these progressive strides: the urgent need to protect and conserve our vital food-producing landscapes.
The Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT) stands at the forefront of this critical mission, advocating for a harmonious intersection of sustainable agricultural production and farmland protection.
Although there is no consensus on defining regenerative or sustainable agriculture, there are some commonly accepted practices to improve and sustain soil health and conservation, such as no-till or conservation tillage, cover cropping, crop rotations and integrating livestock to build organic matter and activity of microorganisms in soils . Through these practices, the battle against climate change could find an important ally in agriculture. Through the adoption of regenerative agriculture techniques, farming can achieve a net-zero food system . By fostering healthy soil, we are also building community resilience and planting the seeds for future generations to flourish by ensuring there will be opportunities to produce healthy and safe local food. Yet, a critical gap remains in our efforts to achieve this. The investments in nurturing fertile, sustainable soil threaten to be undermined if these landscapes succumb to urban sprawl, industrial encroachment, and aggregate extraction.
By 2021, Ontario boasted 11.7 million acres of farmland, a figure decreasing at an alarming rate of 319 acres daily. This downturn not only jeopardizes our quest for sustainable local food production but also imperils the billions of public investments that have propelled Canadian agriculture to the forefront of sustainable practices. We now stand at a crossroads, where the intersection of good land-use policy, financial backing, and grassroots initiatives can craft a resilient blueprint for the future.
OFT’s pivotal role in this resilient future involves our robust farmland protection initiatives, chiefly realized through conservation easement agreements. These legal instruments serve as formidable guardians of farmland, preserving them in essence forever. However, our use of this tool alone harbours limitations.
Bridging the divide between farmland preservation and the adoption of sustainable practices necessitates a shift in governmental and grant agency paradigms, extending support and funding towards innovative, system change, farmland protection endeavors. OFT envisions a holistic approach where our organization, empowered with the right resources, not only conserves land but also steers it towards sustainable usage, fostering a generation of conservation-minded landowners.
As a land trust, OFT has the capability to own land, where we would be better positioned to facilitate sustainable practices, while offering affordable farmland rates. This strategy may be crucial in an era where skyrocketing land prices threaten to alienate new, young, and marginalized community members eager to venture into farming and contribute to sustainable lifestyles and food production practices. Moreover, OFT is poised to nurture the next generation of farmers through educational programs, incubator spaces, and a plethora of resources, facilitating a seamless transition to a new era of food production. It won’t be just us doing this work. We will need support, partnership, and expertise from organizations, businesses, community groups and of course farmers who have been practicing sustainable methods all along.
As we stare down a future where 40% of farmers are nearing retirement and 66% are without a succession plan in place, the call to action echoes louder than ever. We should strive for a future where farmland is not owned by those lobbying to change its land use away from agriculture. If there is a gap in farmers available to steward the land today, land banking our best agricultural land can ensure it’s available for future generations. Do we want our generation’s legacy to be one where we’ve allowed our land use to undermine future generations’ ability to be resilient and thrive? Or do we want to see a future where our decisions have led to a balanced approach to land use, with affordable farmland allowing for robust food production for our communities to access healthy food?
OFT can envision our part in a reimagined system supporting affordable land access and that backs local farmers wholeheartedly. Through a harmonized approach, where protection initiatives and sustainable agriculture resonate in unity, we can forge a path that honors both our land and the farmers who nurture it.
It’s time to usher in an era where the fertile fields of Ontario echo with promises not only of rich harvests but of safeguarded futures for generations to come. OFT is ready to lead this charge. We hope the right people are listening.
1. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. 2018. New horizons: Ontario’s agricultural soil health and conservation strategy. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/landuse/soil-strategy.pdf.
2. World Economic Forum. 2022. What is regenerative agriculture and how can it help us get to net-zero food systems? 3 industry leaders explain. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/12/3-industry-leaders-on-achieving-net-zero-goals-with-regenerative-agriculture-practices/.