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Protecting farmland in Canada

September 25, 2009  ByMarg Land


In the northeast corner of Edmonton is a pocket of dark, sandy, fertile soil and a small microclimate unique to the area. According to an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada study, it averages 143 frost-free days per year (compared to 110 days on land close by) and receives timely rains. For many Alberta farmers, it’s considered to be one of the best areas in the province for growing vegetables, delivering a profit of $270 per acre compared to $25 to $45 an acre in surrounding areas.

In the northeast corner of Edmonton is a pocket of dark, sandy, fertile soil and a small microclimate unique to the area. According to an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada study, it averages 143 frost-free days per year (compared to 110 days on land close by) and receives timely rains. For many Alberta farmers, it’s considered to be one of the best areas in the province for growing vegetables, delivering a profit of $270 per acre compared to $25 to $45 an acre in surrounding areas.

In light of this, thousands of hectares of land in this small pocket of the province are dedicated to vegetable production and market gardening. In many cases, land speculators own the land, which is zoned agricultural, and rent it back to the farmers to work.

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But, according to a series of articles printed recently in the Edmonton Journal, the future of this fertile horticulture land is in jeopardy. During this past summer, Edmonton city council has been wrestling with what to do with the land in the northeast area of the city. On the one side of the issue are the landowners, pushing to have the land moved more quickly into the planning stage. On the other side are the farmers and citizen advocacy groups who are urging the councillors to preserve farmland in the city.

Personally, this seems like a no-brainer to me. With the current movement toward food-miles and local food sources, it would seem ludicrous to pave over prime agricultural land, especially in such a specialized microclimate area. In Edmonton alone, visits to the local farmers’ market have doubled over the past few years and interest has sparked over Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) projects.

Edmonton needs to find a long-term solution to this issue and quickly. With such uncertainty facing the future of this farmland, farmers are hesitant to invest in or expand their operations. Why make the capital investment if the operation will just be bulldozed in 10 years?

And farmers and advocacy groups are smart to push the issue. Edmonton city council’s track record on farmland preservation isn’t a good one. According to Edmonton Journal reporter Sheila Pratt, the city has paved over 74 per cent of the Class 1 farmland around its boundaries. She adds that it’s estimated the city imports 90 per cent of its food, even though it sits on prime agricultural land.

This isn’t an issue just being faced by Edmonton. Nova Scotia recently formed an agricultural land review committee responsible for studying and recommending ways to protect the province’s farmland from commercial and residential development.

“The mandate of the Agriculture Land Review Committee is to provide adequate advice on what steps should be taken, and what processes should be put into place, to preserve agriculture land while fairly representing the interests of all Nova Scotians,” said former Nova Scotia Agriculture Minister Mark Parent when the committee was announced. “The committee will determine if adequate protection already exists or if there is a need to take special measures.”

The decision to form the committee came just two weeks after farmers in the Kings County area of Nova Scotia narrowly voted to keep bylaws in place that prohibit development on agricultural land. According to a report in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, Kings County is one of the few districts in Atlantic Canada that has this restriction. Some farmers in the area are keen to defeat the regulation so they can sell their land for development and reinvest in their operations or retire.

Nova Scotia is also facing the issue of how much farmland to preserve; specifically how much farmland is required to produce the amount of food needed.

Even British Columbia with its agriculture land reserve program, is looking at innovative ways to preserve agricultural land and boost local food production. According to a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, the University of British Columbia’s Greenskins Lab is urging the City of North Vancouver to allow rights of way and boulevards to be used as farmland and planted with crops such as vegetables or fruit.

This could bring a whole new meaning to the term “traffic jam.”


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