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What’s happening to Canada’s farmland?

CBC News has compiled data on Canada's prime farmland in six charts to show what is happening to an invaluable national resource — and what it means for the future.

Canada appears to be losing the equivalent of 3 farms a day

Aerial photo of a ruined barn on a grassy field surrounded by groomed farmland

The Ontario government is giving up parts of the Greenbelt for development, citing the province's housing crisis.

But last month, a group of farmers produced a joint statement that effectively halted one proposal from Bill 97 that would have allowed new kinds of residential and urban development on prime farmland.

"Ontario boasts some of Canada's richest and most fertile farmland and these policy changes put the sustainability of that land and the food system it provides at great risk," the statement read.

Peggy Brekveld, the first signature on the joint statement and president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), has long been critical of development on farmland.

In an op-ed for the Toronto Star last year, she cited statistics from the Census of Agriculture about the country's rapidly diminishing farmland, including the fact that Ontario is losing an average of nine family farms a week.

Using the same formula, Canada can be said to have lost the equivalent of seven small farms a day for 20 years.

Arable land — that is, land suitable for crops — is a limited resource in Canada. According to the Census of Agriculture, every province has seen decades of decline in total farm area.

Nationally, the total reported area is down eight per cent in the last two decades — from 68 million hectares in 2001 to 62 million in 2021.

But does urban development alone account for the millions of hectares Canadian farmers are losing?

CBC News has compiled the data in six charts to show what is really happening to this invaluable national resource, and what it means for the future.

The recent joint statement by the OFA specifically opposed new kinds of housing development on "prime agricultural areas." Those areas are classified, by Canada's Land Inventory, as having soil with "moderate-to-no limitations for agriculture."

But the Census of Agriculture cannot account for soil quality. It is a voluntary poll that asks farmers to self-classify and account for the area of their farms, leaving room for human error.

Other datasets paint a slightly different picture of the Canadian agricultural landscape. But the downward trend remains clear.

Using a variety of methods, including geospatial analysis, researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) calculated the area across Canada that they classify as "cropland" was 46 million hectares in 2021, down seven per cent, from 50 million hectares, in 2001.

Reasons for conversion

Canada's cities are responsible for the majority of arable land converted to urban settlements.

Reports from Statistics Canada comparing surveys from 1971 to 2011 showed an estimated 642,100 hectares of agricultural land were lost to new settlements around Canada's largest metropolitan areas.

The largest conversion from arable land to settlement happened in the Golden Horseshoe area around Toronto.

During that 40-year period, 85 per cent of all urban settlement in the Golden Horseshoe was built on once-prime agricultural land.

By contrast, much less prime land was lost around B.C. cities — thanks in part to provincial land protections introduced in 1973. But what was lost still amounted to 26 per cent of the available prime land B.C. had originally.

Darrel Cerkowniak, a physical scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, said some conversion is harder to take into account.

For example, as farmers make crop rotations, wooded land once used for grazing might be reported only as forest to the census. Similarly, the census doesn't help specifically identify land that was once leased from the Crown, adopted by public parks or turned over to treaty land.

Some arable land, AAFC reported, may also be abandoned or become flooded or re-naturalized.

Still, land conversion only accounts for a fraction of the reported loss. Some farmers say another factor may be responsible.

The issue of consolidation

Along with the decline in farm area, most provinces have seen an even more rapid decline in individual farms — down 23 per cent in the 20-year period.

In the same period, the size of farms increased. In 2001, the average Canadian farm was 274 hectares in size; that number reached 327 hectares in 2021.

Based on the new average, Canada can be said to have lost the equivalent of three full farms per day for 20 years.

Census data shows farmers are turning more of their fallow, pasture and "other" land into production. That means fewer farmers are operating more of the diminishing farmland more thoroughly.

According to a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), what is left of Canadian farmland is becoming concentrated in the hands of bigger and bigger businesses.

That concentration is most dramatic in the Prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta), which make up 70 per cent of the country's farmland.

In 2016, giant Prairie farms larger than 2,000 hectares — just six per cent of farms overall — owned nearly a third of all farmland, and brought in a third of all revenues and net income.

Nettie Wiebe, a professor of ethics at the University of Saskatchewan and an organic farmer with "deep roots" in the Prairies, said a lot of land in her area disappears under urban sprawl. But increased investor ownership may account for why less and less farmland is reported.

The census is "not landing on the desk of the person who fills out the actual productive capacity," said Wiebe, "[but] rather in some corporate office in Toronto, where it's part of an investment portfolio."

Farmland has become exponentially more expensive due to low interest rates and increased speculation and competition. A report from Farm Credit Canada (FCC), a Crown corporation that monitors land sales, showed the average price per hectare quadrupled in 20 years.

"Equitable landholding is being replaced by concentrated control of farmland," the CCPA report says. "Gaining access to farmland is increasingly difficult, thus effectively stifling the possibility of farming as a career choice for young Canadians."

Higher prices and an aging population mean that land is passing into more passive ownership, Wiebe says.

"[Corporate investors] don't have to worry about, 'Are you actually going to be able to grow enough wheat on this acre, or are you actually going to be able to graze enough cattle on this pasture to actually be able to make the payments?'" she said. "They don't have to worry about that, because it's more speculative than that — and their financial well-being isn't determined by their productive capacity."

Wiebe said consolidation and intensive farming practices will actually degrade arable land past the point of usability.

"We're just not going to continue to be able to pour as much chemical into the land and extract as much product out of it without paying a longer-term ecological price," she said.

The ecological price

In addition to growing food, agriculture helps slow climate change by storing carbon in vegetation and soil. AAFC says 10 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions also come from crop and livestock production; as production intensifies, there is less and less farmland available to absorb the emissions.

When farmland is lost to sprawl, it is unlikely to ever recover. Among other effects, "sealing" soil under urban development severely reduces its potential for carbon capture, groundwater absorption and supporting wildlife.

Just as urban sprawl pushes into farmland, farmland pushes into natural wetland and forests. Data from AAFC showed forest land becoming cropland much faster than cropland becoming urban settlements over the last two decades.

Increased production on less land also changes the price, variety and sustainability of the goods that farmers can produce, Wiebe said.

Culturally, she argued, something equally important is also lost.

"The land isn't just a resource. It's the place we live. It's where we're located. It's where we're rooted. It's our neighbourhood," said Wiebe.

She's apprehensive about the diminishing land and the changes that come with it, but she remains optimistic.

"We have a lot to learn, and we have a lot of innovation and a lot of new things to understand," said Wiebe. "It seems to me that there's a generation of young people who are prepared to think critically about that direction."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Charles Brockman

Journalist

Charles Brockman is a multimedia journalist and recipient of the 2023 CBC News Joan Donaldson scholarship. He recently earned a Master of Journalism degree from the University of British Columbia, and has previously worked as a senior designer for CBC News graphics.

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