Vik Kirsch
Guelph Mercury

GUELPH — How well are farmers doing in the protected greenbelt around the Greater Toronto Area, the largest urban centre in Ontario?
University of Guelph researchers hope to shed light on that next year, based on work now underway that establishes a baseline for comparison.
“From that, you might think of some policy and planning initiatives,” University of Guelph rural planning professor Harry Cummings said, hoping insight gleaned from the study will inspire Queen’s Park to make helpful initiatives in the years ahead.
But Wellington Federation of Agriculture president David Parker isn’t confident it will stem the relentless incursion of cities that threatens southern Ontario’s agricultural base, despite the best intentions.
“We’re losing farmland at an alarming rate inside and outside the greenbelt area,” the Belwood-area president said. And he warned that may bring dire consequences.
“When your agriculture dies, your country dies. If you can’t feed your people, you’re screwed,” Parker said.
But the Ontario Greenbelt Alliance is hoping to expand the protected area. The coalition announced Thursday that six cities are considering such a proposal: Guelph, Hamilton, Oakville, Brampton, Mississauga and Toronto.
Farming had suffered in the years before the government created the greenbelt in 2005, compared with other regions of the province. Agriculture in this “near-urban” setting was broadly in decline as a sector — for example, in the five years beginning in 2001, according to a study Cummings conducted with graduate student Sarah Megens and research associate Don Murray, based on Statistics Canada’s agricultural data.
The study found that little more than half the area was in agriculture in 2006, a significant decline from 2001.
In 2006, of the greenbelt’s 1.8 million acres in 14 municipalities, little more than 932,000 acres were in farmland — with 9,075 farmers on 6,261 farms.
That represents an 8.5 per cent decline in farmland between 2001 and 2006. Drilling down, the average farm had shrunk to 149 acres from 151 five years earlier.
“Agriculture and the greenbelt are not faring as well as the rest of Ontario,” Cummings said.
He learned, for example, that the average greenbelt farm’s net revenue was $23,069 in 2005, compared with $26,569 in the rest of the province.
“It points out the trends that have happened,” said Cummings, a professor in the university’s rural planning and development program. “It develops a baseline.”
The intention of the Greater Golden Horseshoe greenbelt, he noted, is to preserve green space around a large urban area, and help agriculture there thrive, as well as protect environmentally sensitive areas.
But Parker said all anyone has to do is drive to the Toronto city limits to see all the construction happening. “Toronto is expanding regardless.”
Further, where urban growth is restricted in protected areas, it skips those and continues urban sprawl further afield, threatening other farming areas, such as those in the Orangeville-Guelph, Puslinch Township areas, Parker said. He compared it to a stone splashing into a lake and sending out ripples in all directions.
While well-intended, greenbelts place restrictions on local agriculture-related infrastructure resources that farmers need, such as farm equipment stores, Parker added.
When that agricultural census information is updated in 2011, it will point to whether those greenbelt intentions have been successful, and to what extent. The hope is that policy-makers can then tweak that approach for further improvements.
Overall, Cummings is encouraged by examples where greenbelt protection has aided farming, pointing to agricultural reserves in southern British Columbia.