Ralph Vyn eyes the colour-coded shapes on the map and the lines that delineate them. They’re a city planner’s imaginary divisions of land in Ancaster.
But Vyn knows the property is as real as the dirt on it. “I’ve farmed it for 50 years.”
The consequences of a civil servant’s drafted lines are also real. “Now, all of the sudden, they’re pulling the carpet out from under you.”
That carpet — his lifeblood — is his 100-acre property on Garner Road West, which could get pulled into the Greenbelt, a change he worries would limit the value of his land.
Vyn has no plans to sell. His two sons, in their 40s, grow flowers for wholesale on the farm. But at 78, he’d like to have the option. Land frozen for agriculture won’t fetch nearly as much as property primed for development.
Vyn was one of nearly 130 people at a city-hosted Greenbelt session at the Ancaster Fairgrounds last week as the province reviews its 10-year-old plan to protect natural and rural Ontario from urban sprawl.
The review of the 1.8-million-acre no-development zone comes as farming approaches a great fork in the road. As farmers age, there are fewer farms. They’re being sold to larger operators or developers.
Meanwhile, skyrocketing property values, fuelled in part by an ongoing Greater Golden Horseshoe population boom, is making it difficult for newcomers to buy land to farm.
Consider, for example, the $8.8-million price tag of a 100-acre-plus “one of a kind farm” on Walkers Line in north Burlington.
Affordability is just one more item in a buffet of obstacles for farmers: volatile commodities, mounting debt, outsized economies of scale, cheap competition in a globalized economy.
Hamilton, which includes an amalgamated region of once-thriving agricultural communities, isn’t bucking the trends. The average age of farm operators here is about 57. In 1981, there were 1, 553 farms; in 2011, there were 885.
As fall harvests fill farmers’ markets with produce, some worry about the future of local agriculture. For longer-term observers, those dark clouds are nothing new.
“It’s the market economy at work,” says Harry Cummings, a University of Guelph rural studies professor.
“This is not recent at all. What we’re seeing is the continuation of a trend that’s been around for 50 years.”
Mid-sized farms, between 100 and 500 acres, are struggling to keep up as larger operations, able to afford more expensive equipment, more animals and more land and favoured by grocery chains, consolidate at the upper end.
“All aspects of the operation have been scaled up. So there isn’t a business model that permits one to do standard commercial agriculture at the smaller-scale level,” Cummings says.
In Hamilton, which includes Glanbrook, Ancaster, Dundas and Flamborough, the average yearly cost of running a farm was $240,007 in 2011.
Agriculture is still a considerable contributor to the local economy, generating nearly 6,000 jobs and an economic impact of $893 million in 2011.
Farms within the city limits represent 13 per cent of agricultural land in the Golden Horseshoe.
Jan Slomp worries about the fallout of farmers selling to developers and larger operators. It also bothers him the rising cost of farmland has little to do with the value of crops.
“It has everything to do with land being classified as a very safe investment,” says Slomp, president of the National Farmers Union and a former Alberta farmer.
Financial institutions and other investors are snapping up farmland for stability during volatile times, he says. “So farmers are competing for farmland with nonfarmers who have way deeper pockets, so it drives up the cost for farmers.”
Farms, in fact, are billed for their potential development value. A 100-acre parcel on Concession 6 in Waterdown listed for nearly $2 million encourages the prospective buyer to “Park Your Money and Let It Grow.”
A 40-acre property with a century home on Southcote Road in Ancaster going for $4.5 million is an “investment opportunity.” Another 38 acres on Book Road listed for $3.6 million is touted as the site of “prime future Airport related business.”
At the Greenbelt meeting, city staffers are peppered with questions that reflect a collision of interests in Ancaster, a melting pot of pastoral beauty, big-box plazas and subdivisions.
Developer Frank Runco says his father bought 70 acres on Book Road in 2008. “And we paid a premium.”
Runco hopes the investment doesn’t become frozen in the protective zone. “That wasn’t our intention when we purchased the parcel.”
For others, expansion of the Greenbelt, rather than contraction, to bring disjointed patches into the fold makes most sense. This is especially true as the area’s population grows, says Ancaster resident Catherine Beattie. “We need more green space and especially connected green space.”
Hamilton’s population is expected to hit 776,000 by 2041, up from about 550,000 today. This mirrors growth in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, which is expected to eclipse 13 million residents, up from just under 10 million.
This week, Environmental Defence warned that about 4,800 acres of Greenbelt land could become “sprawl” if developers and municipalities get what they wish for during the provincial review.
“The Greenbelt is supposed to provide permanent protection to farmland but that’s not stopping sprawl developers and municipalities from trying to gnaw away at it,” Tim Gray, the agency’s executive director, said in a press release.
Development paved over Joe Lindley’s family farm in Burlington decades ago. It used to be where the Mapleview mall now steers shoppers off the QEW in Burlington.
“Thirty acres was sufficient for my great-grandfather to make a good living,” says Lindley, who, in the early 1970s, bought the Ancaster acreage where he farms.
But he’s found a growing niche of customers returning to the basics, demanding locally grown food. “We’ve gone back to growing all these small things.”
The 60-acre farm on Fiddler’s Green Road is a patchwork quilt of crops: tomatoes, cauliflower, lettuce, pumpkins and strawberries. Everything is sold at Lindley’s on-site market.
But “agritainment” has also become part of his business model, Lindley acknowledges. This fall, that involves a four-acre corn maze carefully designed in the shape of a giant Canadian flag. “People enjoy it. They go through the maze. Try to solve it.”
To celebrate harvest, Lindley’s Farm and Market also offers hay rides and a zip-line for kids. In summer, you can pick your own strawberries. Lindley is adapting to the changing market.
But decades ago, he and his wife, both University of Guelph agriculture graduates, decided they couldn’t throw their proverbial eggs into one basket. “It was really a no-brainer to say you need to be off the farm,” the 54-year old says.
Their two adult children aren’t planning to live off farming. Their son wants to be a firefighter and their daughter is a teacher. Nowadays, making children farm is tantamount to “child abuse,” Lindley jokes. Some of his farmer friends, also in their 50s, think the same. “So you can see what’s going to happen in about 10 or 15 years.”
Cathy Inksetter and her brother took over their Shaver Road apple orchard from their parents. “In order to have a family farm, I think you pretty much have to inherit it,” she says.
Even then, it’s hard to compete against the large growers. So they don’t bother. Instead, they sell the apples they grow and baked goods from scratch in their store. “Country people are good cooks,” says Inksetter, 50.
Cummings, the Guelph professor, believes smaller, specialized operations can be profitable. “I don’t know of anybody getting rich, but I do know some people who are doing relatively well and are stable in that area.”
Slomp, of the NFA, is heartened by a proliferation of micro-farmers using direct-marketing to sell their products. These upstarts are often young, educated urban dwellers fuelled by socio-economic and ecological concerns, he says.
“It’s exciting for us but it should be very alarming for the general population that farming is only moving forward in that direction. Alarming in the sense that what is happening to these large tracts of land down the road, and who is going to farm that for whose benefit?”
Ultimately, agriculture must be shielded from escalating property values through changes in government policy and financing, Slomp says. If not, new farmers won’t be drawn to the land as old ones leave. “And society is left with the collective damage of that process.”
Inksetter is dealing with the damage wrought by a May frost. It wiped out about half of Carluke’s fall apple harvest. “We have no honey crisp. And everyone wants honey crisp.”
Tough luck can be the fruit of a farmer’s labours. “But it’s not that bad. I’m at home. This is my family farm. It’s nice.”