Forum explores options for farmers who want to avoid selling their land to developers
ANDREW PHILIPS/SPECIAL TO POSTMEDIA NETWORK Ontario Farmland Trust executive director Kathryn Enders said something needs to be done quickly to stop the loss of Ontario's farmland, which isn't just happening in the Greater Toronto Area, but also in traditionally rural areas like Simcoe County.
It can be a difficult choice, but one Kathryn Enders hopes more farmers are able to make.
The decision to sell a family farm to a developer rather than another farmer makes that person a land speculator instead of a farmer, said Enders, who serves as the Ontario Farmland Trust's executive director.
"It's a very difficult decision farmers have to make," said Enders, whose Guelph-based organization held a day-long forum at Orillia's Best Western Mariposa Inn and Conference Centre Thursday that featured a wide range of speakers and panel discussions focusing on how to best preserve Ontario's vanishing farmland, including areas of Simcoe County.
"Once it's gone, it's gone forever."
The meeting also served as a way to let municipal planners, farmers and others learn about the tools available to protect farmland in Ontario, which conference organizers say now disappears at a rate of roughly 350 acres a day.
The trust, which has been around for about 12 years, seeks to protect and preserve Ontario farmland and associated agricultural, natural and cultural features of the countryside through direct land securement, stewardship, policy research and education for the benefit of Ontarians today as well as future generations.
"We've protected 12 farms and 1,200 acres," Enders said. "But we are relatively new land trust."
One of the key tools employed by Enders' organization is a farmland easement agreement.
These agreements ensure a farm will be protected as agricultural land in perpetuity with farmers able to receive a charitable receipt if they sell their land to another farmer as opposed to a developer since the donation receipt will reflect any difference in selling prices between the two.
"It is hard to walk away from that $5 million," Enders said, noting that should another farmer be offering $500,000 for a chunk of land while a developer is offering twice that amount, a charitable receipt would fill the void between the two sums to help out the vendor.
One of the symposium's presenters discussed the growing concern over prime farmland being bulldozed to make way for industrial, institutional and residential development.
"There are protections for farmland in other parts of this country but not in Ontario," National Farmers Union (Ontario) president Emery Huszka said.
"If legislators in Ottawa and Queen's Park refrained from eating for a few days prior to debating agriculture laws, I'm pretty sure we would have better legislation in favour of farmers."
Huszka's presentation focused on the impact of land ownership leaving the hands of farmers.
"We just saw this in Brantford and Brant County which implemented the largest annexation in southern Ontario in recent history, gobbling up approximately 9,000 acres of mostly prime farmland," he said.
According to Huszka, land assembled into large parcels by investment companies becomes unaffordable to all but the very wealthy and institutional investors such as pension funds. As well, he said farmland investment companies are shifting Canadian farmland ownership from actual farmers to a new class of absentee landlords.
"Farming is not a mobile career," he said. "Farmers invest long-term into their land and they need control in order to make those investments pay off. Instead of urging farmers to get bigger, faster and focus on exports, we need to look at models that provide economic security for farmers, like supply management."