Issue of farmland and development not unique to Ontario

By MPP Bobbi Ann Brady

A few weeks ago, I attended the Council of State Governments Midwestern Legislative Conference in Detroit.

In my social media feeds, which primarily included photos of what I saw in Detroit, I promised to write about what I learned. The first session was with Kansas State Representative Mari-Lynn Poskin, who discussed a bill she helped draft – Kansas Employee Savings Account (KEESA). Through state tax credits, the bill incentivizes small-business owners to implement emergency savings accounts with automatic payroll deductions for employees.

The State of Kansas has discovered the tax credit, during the tight labour market, helps small businesses attract and retain a skilled workforce. Employers, all over North America, found during the pandemic that the inability to address emergency expenses contributed to absenteeism and, thus, financial instability. While I took issue with some aspects of the program, perhaps it’s something Ontario should investigate.

I looked forward to the sessions on food security – Feeding the Future, as well as the Future of Farmland in the Midwest. I left these sessions gravely concerned. Of interest was information on Farms Under Threat 2040, a road map per se on how development and other factors will affect American farmland until 2040. The American Farmland Trust conducted the study in partnership with other conservation and environmental partners.

Since we were in Michigan, that’s the state we chose to focus on. Much like Ontario, Michigan has some tough decisions to make. If recent trends continue, 483,800 acres of Michigan’s farmland will be paved over, fragmented, or converted to uses that will jeopardize agriculture. To put that in perspective, that is 3,100 farms and $353 million in farm output.

I know I’m like a broken record on preserving Ontario’s farmland, so it was encouraging to learn that I’m not alone, as the American Farmland Trust believes every acre counts. Farmland feeds us, but it can do far more. With appropriate stewardship, farmland can also sequester carbon in the soil, protect our water quality and provide habitat for a wide range of wildlife and native species.

According to the Ontario Farmland Trust, Ontario is losing 319 plus acres of farmland each day – nearly double the 175 acres of farmland lost per day reported in the 2016 Census of Agriculture. Urbanization is one of the biggest culprits for the loss, but not the only one. From 2001 to 2016, the United States lost or compromised 2,000 acres of farm or ranch land each day – this is staggering. Of more significant concern is that if the current trend continues, by 2040 24.4 million acres of farm/ranchland could be gone.

Today’s land use planning is haphazard, and I fear food security is being undermined.

Looking at today is short-sighted. What kind of future do we wish for our children, our grandchildren? The way I see it, and obviously, I am not alone, is that today’s development is being poorly planned and done without common sense. I will repeat the example that was recently presented at my agricultural town hall meeting – it’s alright for a developer to pave over an entire farm but it’s impossible for a farmer to create a reinvestment or succession-planning lot.

It’s time North America rethinks its approach to development, and it’s also time all governments provide the necessary tools to help farmers succeed. This will go a long way to attracting and retaining farmers as well as keeping land in agriculture.

Bobbi Ann Brady is the MPP for Haldimand-Norfolk.