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Toronto’s golden Greenbelt

Now that the world’s largest greenbelt has outlasted the political controversies, could you farm there?

Toronto’s golden Greenbelt

When Ontario’s Greenbelt turned 15 this past February, all four of Ontario’s political parties gathered at Queen’s Park to celebrate. According to Michael Young, communications advisor for the Greenbelt Foundation, the event was “a positive and convivial occasion, with a sense that we were all coming together with the shared belief that the Greenbelt must remain permanent, protected and prosperous.”

But what did the farmers think?

Ontario’s Greenbelt was established by the provincial government to maintain the area’s agricultural land while protecting natural features, wildlife habitat, recreational lands and the hydrological systems that not only provide flood control, but supply fresh drinking water to millions of Ontarians.

The Greenbelt Plan is shaping the future of the Greater Golden Horseshoe, one of the most dynamic and fast-growing regions in North America and home to more than two-thirds of Ontario’s population and a quarter of Canada’s. According to Edward McDonnell, CEO of the Greenbelt Foundation, the protected area of 809,371 hectares (two million acres) is “Ontario’s solution to some of the world’s biggest challenges — food insecurity, water protection, rural economic prosperity, growth management, biodiversity loss and climate change. You can’t separate these areas — they are co-dependent,” he says.

Maintaining agriculture close to urban centres has been, and continues to be, a worldwide concern. Ontario’s initiative is the largest greenbelt on the globe and a model that draws farmers, scientists and environmentalists from around the world who come to visit and learn.

Here is what these visitors discover:

The protected area bordering the metropolitan region of the Greater Golden Horseshoe is the most biodiverse region in Canada. Its fertile soil, moderate climate and abundant water resources — all of which support agricultural production — are not duplicated elsewhere in the province or the country, making it some of Canada’s most important and productive farmland. “It is also,” says McDonnell, “the region where biodiversity is most at risk due to urban sprawl and population growth.”

The Golden Horseshoe is home to nearly half of all food processing companies in Canada. The food and farming culture here is second only to the food-growing of California and processing in Chicago.

More than nine million people live within 20 kilometres of the Greenbelt. In the next 25 years, the region’s population is expected to grow to 13.5 million.

With $9.1 billion a year in economic activity, the Greenbelt supports 161,000 people.

Farmland makes up 40 per cent of the protected area, including Oak Ridges Moraine and two specialty-crop areas — the Niagara Tender Fruit and Grape Area, and the Holland Marsh. Farms and businesses in these two areas alone deliver an astounding diversity of food and drink. Local foods, award-winning wines, craft beer, cider, farmers markets, agri-food and culinary tourism experiences all play a part in keeping rural economies thriving.

"Many city folk have the impression farm fields are theirs to roam,” says Peel’s Dolson. Still, outreach is building better levels of understanding. photo: Supplied

Understanding the Greenbelt and its constituents

“In the early days, many people had concerns,” says McDonnell. “Some of those were based on not thoroughly understanding what the Greenbelt was or what it would mean. Some farmers saw their plan of eventually selling to developers squashed. In the past 10 years, the understanding of the benefits has become clearer and we have seen a lot of support in the agricultural community.”

In the long term, the Greenbelt has stopped the sprawl. “We want cities to grow — not out, but up,” says Janet Horner, executive director of the Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance. “And we don’t want the last crop to be a crop of houses.”

Research by Environics Analytics over the past 15 years has provided a picture of urban residents’ awareness, understanding and importance of the Greenbelt. According to Group VP David MacDonald, public awareness in the early days was nonexistent. Initially, respondents were unable to say whether they supported the Greenbelt Plan or not. However, familiarity with the goals and objectives has grown, resulting in a dramatic swing to what MacDonald describes as “wildly supportive.”

Kathy MacPherson, VP of research and policy at Greenbelt Foundation, credits COVID-19 and the media for making the public more aware of the importance of locally grown food and helping them to understand the importance of having and supporting local producers and an appreciation of food security.

But, as can be expected with a project of this magnitude and complexity, it comes with challenges and differing opinions. Farmers’ perspectives differ, depending on their location. For example, farmers in Durham County, an area east of Toronto that runs north from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe tend to like it. There is little development pressure here, a greater certainty around expanding an operation, the confidence to plan for their future on the farm and no worry about houses popping up over the fenceline.

Near-urban agriculture in heavily populated counties such as Peel County — an area west of Toronto that includes the communities of Mississauga, Brampton, Caledon and Orangeville — face different problems. Leah Emms, a member of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) field staff, says that in these counties the volume of commuter traffic on roads designed for urban use makes moving heavy agricultural equipment from A to B difficult and dangerous. Ag-related service providers — such as feed mills and farm equipment suppliers — relocated farther afield when there was no longer a critical mass of farms, which has resulted in lengthy drives for farmers to obtain supplies and machinery parts, although for market gardeners or those involved in agritourism the advantage is their proximity to large markets.

For Tom Dolson, president of the Peel Federation of Agriculture, the Greenbelt was a worthy objective, but flawed by a lack of planning for affordable housing and transit. “Peel farmers are an anomaly,” he says.

Established communities in the region that were left with no room to grow have leapfrogged over farm-designated land to build new housing developments and bedroom communities just beyond the Greenbelt.

“These bedroom communities add to traffic problems,” Dolson says. Farm proximity to these new residential communities can also be a source of frustration and conflict. “Many city folk have the impression that farm fields are theirs to roam or picnic on and are unaware of the crop damage they incur. Garbage dumping over farm fences is a too-common occurrence.”

There’s also the economics. In the Stouffville area of York County north of Toronto, Kim and Murray Empringham have been farming 900 acres — mainly cash crops and sheep — for the past 45 years. “We are not the typical farm operation,” Kim says, “because we rent the land.”

"The public is now more aware of the importance of farmland,” Grant says. Challenges remain, but so does optimism. photo: Supplied

Prices here have prevented the couple from buying. Renting from speculators over the years is an arrangement that works for them. “We continue to see more city folk buying 100-acre lots and putting up huge houses with expansive lawns, resulting in a loss of farmland. But as long as this doesn’t get out of hand, we will have land to farm.”

Gord Grant, OFA member service rep for Waterloo, Wellington and Dufferin counties, says the Greenbelt adds another level of regulatory hurdles for farmers to jump before doing any kind of expansion such as building a barn or other structure. “More paperwork, more hassle, more regulations as to size and the location on the property where a structure can be built,” he says. For example, the 30-metre setback from woodlots prevents erecting a barn or small building such as a cold storage for fruit that would provide additional income on the most logical section of the property.

Gerry Reid, whose 550-acre Dufferin County farm has been in the family since 1845, says “the Greenbelt has made a lot of people feel really good, especially touchy-feely tree-huggers,” but one of his frustrations is the extra tier of bureaucracy imposed by the conservation area on which his farm is situated. “I don’t like to be negative,” he says, “but we have so many layers of government and the Greenbelt adds one more.”

Many suburbanites purchasing property that abuts farmland aren’t aware of normal farm practices. They don’t understand that living in the country means dealing with farm smells, spraying of crops and orchards, the noisy bird bangers in the Niagara vineyards at certain times of the year, and heavy machinery creeping along the roads. “In many areas there is no buffer between a subdivision and an active farm,” says Janet Horner. “Edge planning has not been as strong in the past as it should be.”

And what of the future?

A report released in June 2020 from the Greenbelt Foundation (Plant the Seeds: Opportunities to Grow Southern Ontario’s Fruit and Vegetable Sector) outlines the opportunity to expand Ontario’s $2.2 billion fruit-and-vegetable sector by up to $100 million in increased farm-gate revenue.

The report focuses on six crops: grapes, pears, strawberries, garlic, eggplant and sweet potatoes, as well as vertical farming. According to this analysis, the expansion could replace some of the annual $7.3 billion now earned by imports.

“This report was timely,” says Alison Robertson, executive director of Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association, “except COVID-19 came along, totally disrupting the supply chain. It is my hope that when we emerge from this crisis — whether it is next year or the year after — consumers, food retailers and all levels of government will have a better understanding of where our food comes from, along with a new appreciation for the importance of increasing Ontario fruit and vegetable production.”

Politicians of all stripes have queued up to praise the Greenbelt for saving agriculture. But has it been saved? photo: Supplied

“I believe the public is now more aware of the importance of farmland and why it should be treasured,” says Gord Grant of the OFA.

“The farmers I work with are mostly hopeful and look forward positively. Certainly, the future will not be without challenges, but the challenges can be overcome, and their enterprises have a future that they are committed to.”

The organizations

The Ontario provincial government is the author, holder and implementor of the Greenbelt Plan. Today’s Greenbelt comprises areas identified by previous governments; the plan originated with the Bill Davis government. The Oak Ridges Moraine was added when Mike Harris was premier. Protected countryside and agricultural land were added next and, most recently, the Kathleen Wynne government added 21 urban river valleys, from Niagara to Durham.

The Greenbelt Foundation is the charitable organization dedicated to ensuring that the Ontario Greenbelt remains permanent, protected and prosperous, and to making investments in its interconnected natural, agricultural and economic systems, which ensure a working, thriving Greenbelt for all. The Greenbelt Plan, administered by the foundation, identifies where urbanization should not occur in order to provide permanent protection to the agricultural land base and the ecological and hydrological features, areas and functions within the area.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture has articulated the farmers’ perspectives on the Greenbelt — initially, and through every proposal, amendment, and addition since — according to Peter Jeffrey, senior farm policy analyst. “We support the protection of agriculture land from non-compatible development,” he says, “and we continually try to argue that there are still some aspects of the plan that we feel are unduly restrictive.”

The Golden Horseshoe Food and Farming Alliance is a partnership between the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, the Friends of the Greenbelt, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the regional municipalities and Federations of Agriculture in Niagara, Peel, Halton, York, Durham and the cities of Toronto and Hamilton. Their goal is to identify pathways for a more integrated and co-ordinated approach to food and farming viability in the area, to ensure that the Golden Horseshoe retains, enhances and expands its role as a leading food and farming cluster.

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