Prime Farmland Conversion: New University of Guelph Research is on its Way

A new University research project sets out to measure and document the conversion of prime farmland in Ontario. Prime agricultural land in Ontario is continuously under threat from non-farm development despite provincial policies and municipal policy objectives of protecting farmland resources in the long term. Farmland loss is a growing concern, given the necessary and limited supply of prime agricultural land to support Ontario’s agricultural sector.

The goal of this study is to develop a methodology that can be replicated across Ontario to measure the amount of farmland converted to a variety of non-farm land uses. The study is:

-Streamlining and synthesizing data across Ontario to help determine how agricultural land is classified and how land availability is quantified.

-Conducting jurisdictional review to determine key policies and practices supportive of farmland protection.

-Documenting farmland conversion before and after the implementation of the Greenbelt Plan and Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.


The study involves a review of regional, county, and local Official Plan amendments, key informant interviews, provincial plans, and other base data such as the census. Since land use decisions are often made decades before actual development occurs, Official Plan amendments are a good place to look for early identification of farmland conversion and a major focus area of this project.

The methodology has so far been applied to 10 counties and regions, including 8 within the Greenbelt. Initial findings have shown:

-The Greenbelt Act (2005) has been effective in preventing conversion of prime agricultural land to non-farm uses.

-Prime farmland outside of the Greenbelt continues to be converted. Rates of farmland loss vary depending on the region or county and related development pressures.

-Variations in agricultural land use policy and data collection across case study municipalities, which impact Official Plan amendments and the amount of farmland loss captured.

-Municipalities, within and adjacent to the Greater Toronto Area have higher rates of prime farmland conversion.


The research is relevant and timely in light of the current provincial Co-ordinated Land Use Planning Review. Accurate data on agricultural land conversion is needed to advance farmland preservation policies at both the provincial and municipal levels; this project provides a new data set that will inform policy development and provide a baseline from which to monitor the effectiveness of various land use policies in protecting prime agricultural lands.

This study will be completed by 2017, providing a greater understanding of the state of farmland loss and availability in Ontario and an analysis of policy variations between municipalities.

Research being conducted by Sara Epp, a PhD student in Rural Studies; Anissa McAlpine, a 2nd year MSc candidate in Rural Planning and Development; and James Newlands, an MSc candidate in Rural Planning and Development with the direction of Dr. Wayne Caldwell.

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