For a protected area that was meant to preserve southern Ontario’s farmland and agriculture, the Greenbelt doesn’t seem to have done the job for livestock producers, a new study suggests.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that “traditional” livestock operations, such as dairy, beef and hog farms, have experienced a decline throughout Ontario since 2001.
But the new profile of the Greenbelt’s agricultural economy, sponsored by the provincial ag ministry and authored by Prof. Harry Cummings of the University of Guelph’s School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, finds that trend much more dramatic in the Greenbelt than anywhere else in Ontario.
For their study, which the university outlined in a release Friday (Dec. 18), Cummings and graduate students Sandra Moreau and Sarah Megens compared agricultural census data from 2001 and 2006 for the Greenbelt.
The Greenbelt is the province’s designated zone of permanent protection for 1.8 million acres of farmland and other “environmentally sensitive” land around southern Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe, taking in the Niagara Escarpment, the Oak Ridges Moraine, Rouge Park, several hundred rural towns and villages, and about 7,100 farms.
The study generated the only custom-tabulated agricultural census results for the Greenbelt, as drawn from a Statistics Canada database which allowed them to analyze census data from only farms and farm parcels within the greenbelt.
The data showed the number of dairy farms decreased by 28 per cent in the greenbelt, compared to 23 per cent provincewide. Greenbelt beef farm numbers declined by 24 per cent, compared to 13 per cent across Ontario. Hog farm numbers fell by 11 per cent provincially, compared to a 27 per cent decline in the Greenbelt.
The number of sheep and goat farms, meanwhile, grew 34 per cent in Ontario between 2001 and 2006, but declined by eight per cent in the Greenbelt.
As well, the number of poultry and egg farms grew five per cent across the province in that five-year span but dropped by 19 per cent within the Greenbelt.
Both the Greenbelt and the province in general posted increased in the number of farms in the “other animal production” category: bees, horses, ponies, rabbits, alpacas, bison, wild boars and so on.
However, while the Greenbelt saw a five per cent increase, for example, in the number of horses and ponies between 2001 and 2006, it was “outpaced” by the province overall, in which the numbers rose 17 per cent in the same time frame.
Overall, the number of farms in the Greenbelt dropped by seven per cent between 2001 and 2006. That’s three per cent higher than the provincial decline, the university noted.
Questions of viability
“These trends, and the difference in animal population change within the greenbelt compared to the province, raise a number of interesting questions regarding the viability of animal production in close proximity to a major urban area,” Cummings said in the university’s release.
“There is some indication that the Greenbelt area has unique characteristics that influence the type and scale of production within its boundaries,” he added. “We need to look deeper to fully understand the causes and implications of this change.”
As they do in other areas of the country, farm consolidation and retirement account for some of the decreasing farm numbers, the study authors said.
However, Greenbelt farmers who took part in the researchers’ nine focus groups said they were “generally unhappy with the lack of planning policy around the Greenbelt.”