Agriculture is an integral part of smart growth. The ability to feed one's own population is critical to the independence of any state. Ontario is blessed with resources that have facilitated the development of a worldclass agricultural industry that provides safe, nutritious, and reliable food. The ability to feed the local population from local sources should not be underestimated.
Perhaps because of its long-term presence in the study area, agriculture tends to be taken for granted. Many people expect that it will continue in perpetuity and that as it is pushed out of one area by urban expansion, it will relocate in another area that is less subject to growth pressure. This assumption is false.
Agriculture is a diverse industry with very specific locational connections. Certain crops can only be grown in specific locations where the combination of a variety of factors including soil, moisture, temperature, and topography is right. When such areas are lost to agriculture, the ability to produce the crops that require that particular combination of factors is also lost. The public needs to understand that agricultural land is a nonrenewable resource requiring appropriate management techniques. Before allowing land to go out of production, decision makers must consider the implications of that decision and evaluate it in terms of the long-term loss to Ontario.
Preserving the quality of life is perhaps the most fundamental goal of smart growth. A healthy agricultural industry close to urban areas contributes to the quality of life in ways that should not be underestimated. This contribution can be evaluated in terms of:
- the national security value of being able to provide a secure and nutritious food supply;
- the economic value of a world-class industry run by experienced and knowledgeable operators;
- the social value of providing products in response to the demands of a changing ethnic population seeking alternative foods;
- the recreational value of being able to travel to pick-your-own operations and spend time in a rural setting;
- the direct environmental value of improvements to the quality of the environment;
- indirect environmental value in the preservation of green space, habitat, and wildlife corridors;
- public health value in maintaining control over the food supply and the ability to regulate how it is grown and what techniques are used to grow it; and
- historic value, in that agriculture is part of the history of the settlement of Ontario.
Benefits such as these all need to be considered during the development of a smart growth strategy.
The challenge of the smart growth initiative will be to establish an environment that will allow the continued existence of a healthy agricultural industry. Competing demands for land will have to be balanced against the benefits of maintaining a healthy agricultural base. To date, the Ontario government has supported a policy that nominally protects agricultural land. However, when faced with demands for urban expansion, growth has usually taken precedence. This trend is eating away at the resource. Hard decisions must be made about what will be protected, where it will be protected, how it will be protected, and whether a healthy agricultural industry is a government priority.
This will not be an easy task; forecasting is never easy. The agricultural industry has advanced greatly in the past few decades. What was not possible 20 years ago is now routine. Crops that were unheard-of are now common, growing seasons can be extended, land that had little value 20 years ago is now some of the most profitable land in production.
Agricultural policies must be flexible enough to accommodate further changes. The basic building blocks, including land and work force, must be preserved and allowed to respond to advances in technology. When an opportunity arises, the land and personnel must be there to seize on it.
For the agricultural community, uncertainty is a major issue. Farmers are used to dealing with uncertainty related to weather, they expect it and are prepared for it. What they do not expect and cannot deal with is ongoing economic uncertainty, uncertainty related to the legislative context within which they must work, uncertainty about land use controls or environmental regulations. The pervasive pessimism among even the most successful farmers needs to be addressed. The average age of farmers is rising and the pessimistic attitude discourages the younger generation from entering the sector.
Regulation of this sector is often rigid. Traditionally, issues have been compartmentalized and dealt with individually. This is the antithesis of what a successful farm operation requires, where issues are inter-related and need to be considered together. Rigid regulations that are slow to change preclude the flexibility the industry needs to be successful. To preserve agriculture, it is not enough to preserve the land; society must also preserve the farmer. For this to happen, farmers must operate in an environment where they are certain of the rules and can respond quickly to changing local, national, and international markets.
The Smart Growth panel has a difficult job. To respond to the mandate of "steering growth pressures away from significant agricultural lands", a strategy that is both rigorous and flexible is required. Rigour will be required to withstand the considerable pressures on agricultural land and the agricultural community. Flexibility is needed to provide an environment in which farmers can operate successfully.