Urban Sprawl Forcing Farmers To Cultivate Poorer Soil (By Joe Paskevas, CanWest News Service)

February 1, 2005: Urban Sprawl Forcing Farmers To Cultivate Poorer Soil (By Joe Paraskevas, CanWest News Service)

Urban sprawl forcing farmers to cultivate poorer soil
Statistics Canada survey details how much of the best farmland has been lost

Joe Paraskevas
CanWest News Service

February 1, 2005

OTTAWA — Urban Canada has grown at such a rate over the last 30 years it's gobbled up some of the country's best agricultural terrain, says Statistics Canada.

By 2001, Canadian cities and towns had taken over 7,400 square kilometres of land traditionally reserved for farming, more than doubling its incursion into rural areas, said the report released Monday. The study was based on census data and the Canada Land Inventory, a government data base.

The development took over three per cent of what the report called “dependable agricultural land” and seven per cent of the country's Class 1 agricultural land, considered “the best and most productive.”
“Although the losses of agricultural land to urban uses may appear to be small,'' the Statistics Canada report said, “this measure does not take into account two important issues.

“In some regions,'' the report went on to say, “urbanization of agricultural land affects specialty crops that have a limited ability to flourish in Canada.''

It named “the fruit belts'' in Ontario's Niagara peninsula and in British Columbia's Okanagan valley as two places where the collision of urban and rural Canada has taken away farmland used to grow crops that cannot be produced elsewhere.

The seizure of agricultural land hasn't only replaced crops with houses or shopping malls, the report added.

“Golf courses, gravel pits and recreational areas are often located on agricultural land adjacent to urban areas,'' it said.

The report also pointed out that, as the amount of prime agricultural land has diminished, the demand for arable territory has increased, forcing farmers to cultivate poorer soil.

“Farmers, because of very low margins, are trying to produce more units per farm,'' said Bob Friesen, president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, acknowledging the report's findings. “They've had to resort to using (lower quality) land to produce more to try to get higher incomes.''

In 2001, about 14,300 square kilometres of urban land had been formerly used for agriculture.

Today, 99 per cent of Class 1 agricultural land in this country is in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

In 1971, urban areas occupied a little less than six per cent of Class 1 land in Ontario. By 2001, that number had increased to 11 per cent.

Less than two per cent of Class 1 land in Alberta was urbanized in 1971. Thirty years later, that figure had increased to more than six per cent.

The trends the report described are worrisome because they are essentially permanent, one of the report's authors said.

“If something's been paved over for a road or you have residential development, it's difficult to return it back to agriculture,'' said Nancy Hofmann, a senior analyst with Statistics Canada.

The government report echoed the findings of other groups, said two urban affairs experts.

Historically, cities have been founded in the middle of a region's best farmland, so it isn't surprising a modern city's expansion reduces the amount of prime quality agricultural terrain, said Jino Distasio, acting director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

The relentless advance of urban areas into rural underlined the power of developers on municipal politicians, Distasio added, pointing to Winnipeg itself, which is locked in a municipal debate over a 10,000 home development on formerly agricultural land the city recently rezoned.

“Maybe it's part of the frontier mentality,'' Distasio suggested. “We've got vast parcels of land. Some places are booming like Calgary. How do you limit that?''

Kevin McNaney, acting executive director of Smart Growth B.C., a Vancouver group specializing on issues of urban sprawl, said his province took steps in the 1970s to curb the expansion of cities into rural areas.

As a result, he said, both agricultural industries and urban life flourished.

“Some of our cities and towns have become some of the most livable in the world because new growth, rather than being thrown out to the periphery on farmland and open space, has been directed back in to the cities,'' McNaney said.

“The interesting thing that also happened,'' he added, “was the economic boom that agriculture since realized. Agriculture in B.C. is now a $2.2-billion industry.''

In British Columbia as in every other Canadian province, the amount of formerly rural land now used for human settlement has ballooned. Baby boomers in need of housing, a larger urban population, and the continuing spread of the automobile culture were credited for the trend.

1971 1,600 sq. kilometres
2001 4,100 sq. km
Source: Statistics Canada, Vancouver Sun
Ran with fact box “Less Room to Grow…”, which has been appended to the end of the story.