Farming in the Urban Shadow
Farming in the Urban Shadow

Farming in the Urban Shadow

8 min read
Written by Marc Xuereb

by Greg Mercer
The Record, January 7, 2012–farming-in-the-urban-shadow

WATERLOO REGION — Think you’ve got commuting problems? Try driving a lumbering combine down Fischer-Hallman Road at rush hour.

Bill Henhoeffer’s family has farmed at the corner of Bleams and Fischer-Hallman for nearly 100 years. As Kitchener’s suburbs have grown outward, the once-quiet countryside has become a busy suburb, making the 70-year-old farmer look like the odd man out.

If he’s not getting overtures from developers drooling over his land, he’s getting the bird from irate motorists who figure they shouldn’t have to share the road with his slow farm equipment.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Henhoeffer said. “It can often be backed up from Bleams all the way to the roundabout … and people have no patience. They try to pass you on the right.

“Luckily, we’ve never had an accident, but we get the finger a lot.”

Flourishing cities are good for a lot of things. But when you’re a farmer, growing food in the urban shadow can also be a real pain in the neck.

Waterloo Region is home to about 1,400 farms, and the roughly $400-million sector still employs about 3,500 people directly. But as our population swells past 550,000 residents, some farmers are feeling increasingly out of place on land their families have farmed for decades.

And no wonder — Waterloo Region has lost about 32,375 hectares (80,000 acres) of working farmland since the 1920s, according to Statistics Canada.

It hasn’t all gone to urban sprawl, but much of it has. In the 1950s, the region’s built-up urban areas totalled 38 square kilometres. Today, they’ve swollen to over 202 square km, according to a study by the University of Waterloo’s map library.

Many farmers who own land near this region’s urban areas have had experiences similar to Henhoeffer’s. People trespass through their fields and tear up their land joyriding.

More than a few complain about vans that pull up to their property at night and unload crews that pick over soybean crops, or home decorators who help themselves to their corn stalks.

Then there are the legions of commuters who use rural roadways as autobahn-style shortcuts to work, leading to more conflicts with farmers.

Some commuters simply won’t accept any delay in their drives to and from work — meaning that the lumbering farm vehicle blocking their path is public enemy №1.

“They shoot along those parallel roads at about 120 clicks,” said Fred Wagner, a Breslau-area farmer who has farmed land on either side of busy Highway 7 since the 1970s.

“We’re on the road with farm equipment that only travels 30 clicks an hour and they have no comprehension or understanding for it. Some people are just too ignorant.”

Roadside dumping is a constant problem, too.

Wagner says he’s pulled “truckloads” of construction waste — from old drywall to nail-covered scrap wood — out of his fields.

“They don’t even put it in the ditch, they go right into your field. And I have to start cleaning it up or else I’m going to get flat tires. It happens again and again,” Wagner said.

Farmers have long complained that awareness of this region’s agricultural heritage is fading. Most of us city dwellers probably wouldn’t know the difference between a field of winter wheat from a field that’s left fallow.

“People drive by farms on the way to work and it’s just nice scenery. They don’t think about all the industry that comes from that scenery,” said Gord Grant, the regional representative for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

If you’re a farmer who makes his living off farm gate and direct-to-consumer sales, a growing urban region can obviously be good for business.

But it isn’t without its headaches, either.

Trevor Herrle, whose family owns a farm market along Erb’s Road west of Waterloo, had his maple syrup shack and equipment destroyed by vandals. Like others, he’s also caught people helping themselves to his crops.

“It is frustrating, and it’s only going to get worse,” he said. “It’s the joys of farming around the city. People treat it as if it’s public property.”

• • •

The nuisance of farming in an urban area can drive some farmers out. But the biggest factor that moves farmers out of an area is almost always land prices, Grant said.

“It’s largely driven by what developers do to the price of land,” he said. “That’s the ultimate first conflict. How long can you continue to afford to farm when the value of the land is well past the value of the farm for farming purposes?”

In that sense, a growing population can also have its advantages for some farmers. Those looking to sell their land can find developers willing to pay dramatically inflated sums for their fields, leaving the farmer with a nice nest egg for retirement.

That’s providing, of course, they’re one of the few farm properties left unprotected by Waterloo Region’s official plan, which aims to contain future growth within our urban areas.

That plan, which has placed a fixed border between urban and rural lands in Waterloo Region, has created a two-tier system of farmers.

Those with land inside the so-called countryside line are free to sell their land to developers; those outside, aren’t.

There are only a few dozen farms still operating inside the countryside line, and you can be certain most are heavily courted by developers who want those last few thousand hectares of available, unprotected land.

All told, there’s about 3,075 hectares (7,600 acres) of farmland (including gravel pits) remaining inside the urban areas of Kitchener, Cambridge and Waterloo that could still be developed. That should be enough land for projected growth until 2029 unless intensification decreases the need for more space, says Kevin Eby, director of community planning for the regional government.

There’s another 600 or so hectares (1,480 acres) of farmland around communities in the townships that could also be developed in a more a less intensive way, he said.

But the decision to sell doesn’t always come down to economics, of course.

If there’s a family member willing to take over a farm, a farmer is often more willing to keep it in the family. Two out of three Ontario farms, however, have no plan in place for who will take over when the owner passes on.

In the battle between farmland and Waterloo Region’s urban areas, farmers have long been losing ground.

The region has shed about 32,375 hectare (80,000 acres) of farmland since the 1920s, or roughly a quarter of its entire land mass, according to Statistics Canada. Today, there are about 91,460 hectares (226,000 acres) of farmland left here, most of it in the rural townships.

That only counts farmland that is “headquartered” in the region, meaning farms whose owners are based here. Still, it gives a staggering idea of the cost, in land terms, of urbanization.

Put another way, that’s the total acreage of the entire sprawling campus of the University of Waterloo, multiplied by 80, taken out of food production.

That might seem like progress to some, but to many farmers, it’s something else — a waste. Ontario is home to some of the best farmland in the world, and not every farmer wants to cash in on their livelihood.

“That land should be for producing food,” Wagner says.

Although the Region of Waterloo has tried to concentrate urban growth inside the countryside line, our non-protected agricultural space continues to vanish, turned into subdivisions, malls and commercial space.

Farmers who fled Brampton’s explosive growth in the 1970s and 1980s and relocated to Wellesley and Wilmot townships say they’re seeing the same trend here: long-established farms uprooting in the face of encroaching cities.

But the loss of farmland to urban development isn’t unique to Waterloo Region.

It’s part of a pattern that has been playing out across Ontario for the past century, as cities and towns gobble up surrounding lands, and farmers become more efficient with the space they have.

In 1921, there were 9.145 million hectares (22.6 million acres) of farmland in Ontario. Today, it’s closer to 5.26 million hectares.

In the Prairies and British Columbia, it’s the opposite trend — farmers have added millions of hectares to what their grandfathers would have tilled in the 1920s.

At the same time, Ontario farmland remains some of the most expensive growing land in the world, and the price rises steadily.

In January 2008, the assessed rate for tax purposes for an acre of Waterloo Region farmland was as high as $6,600, according to the Municipal Property Assessment Corporation.

That’s about $2,000 more per acre than it was in 2005, the agency reported. In reality, however, the land can fetch far more than that on the real estate market.

In parts of South America, by comparison, an acre of fertile farmland can be bought for $50; in Ukraine, you can buy an acre for $200, says Jeff Stager, the former president of the Waterloo Federation of Agriculture.

High land prices are part of the reason local farmers are increasingly squeezed out by cheap imports.

“We produce the highest quality food in the world. But we’re lousy at producing it cheaply,” Stager said.

It means Waterloo Region’s farmers are trying to grow food for as little cost as possible to compete against imports from countries where land is a fraction of the price — all the while knowing they could make far more simply selling their land.

And demand for their land remains “exceptionally high,” according to a recent report on the issue by ReMax, the real estate firm.

The market price for an acre of farmland in Waterloo Region in 2011 has hovered between $10,000 and $11,000 — making it some of the most expensive farmland in Ontario, next to farms in Holland Marsh, Chatham-Kent and South Huron regions.

That’s the rub for today’s farmer. Continue working the land for a modest living, or sell it to someone willing to pay far beyond market value and retire comfortably. It’s the kind of skewed math that destroys the whole farming business formula.

“Urbanization forces farmers to become land speculators, even the ones that don’t want to be,” Grant said. “Once land gets past the value of farming and moves into $20,000, $50,000, $100,000 an acre, a lot of farmers get forced into asking ‘Can I ignore that?”

Farmers, he says, can’t be entirely blamed for selling out to a developer, and living on the proceeds.

“Are we to blame a farmer who sells for that speculative value?” Grant said.

The sale of farmland to developers has also given rise to another niche market for farmers: leasing land that’s intended to be developed, which saves the developer taxes until they’re ready to build.

Still, it’s not clear how increased densification and the region’s official plan will slow the outward growth of our cities, and what that will mean for the dwindling number of farmers still sitting on developable land in Waterloo Region.

Farms here are not disappearing at the rate seen in other areas. The region lost 146 farms in the decade between 1996 and 2006, according to Statistics Canada.

But with many of those farms having no succession plan, their numbers could dwindle significantly within a generation or two, Stager said.

“Within a few decades, we could have 50 of them left, but we could still produce the same amount of food,” Stager said. “I guess the big question is, does it matter?”

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Farm facts

  • Farmland Waterloo Region has lost since the 1920s: 80,000 acres
  • Increase in our urban areas since the 1950s, now at 202 square km: 537%
  • Farms left in the region, employing about 3,500 people directly: 1,400
  • Average farm size in region, smaller than the provincial average: 70–129 acres
  • Local farm revenue in 2006: $400 million
  • Market price per acre of region’s farmland: $10,000
  • Market price per acre of farmland in Ukraine: $200

Sources: Statistics Canada, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, University of Waterloo map library