Farmers' rights vs. greenbelt controls
The Standard (St. Catharines)
Tuesday, June 15, 2004
Page: A7
Section: Viewpoint
Source: The Standard

The protection of agricultural lands is an important and worthy challenge for a society that has allowed urban sprawl to gobble up fields and green space across North America. And Niagara, with its precious fruitlands, has long been held as an example of a potential victim of the voracious appetite of urban development.

But often forgotten in the combined efforts of idealists and environmentalists to preserve every inch of farmland are the people whose livelihoods depend on that land.

Farmers cannot and must not be ignored under Ontario's Bill 27, the Greenbelt Protection Act that was introduced in December and is intended as a first step in protecting agricultural land.

Members of the province's Greenbelt Task Force must take heed of the farmers' voices heard last week when the committee held a public meeting in St. Catharines.

The province has imposed a development freeze in the Golden Horseshoe during the study and various stages of the legislative process, and most of the people who spoke at Thursday's meeting worried that the act's implementation will limit their rights by freezing development on their lands without any compensation plan.

Beamsville farmer Caroline Hughes noted that if she loses money growing grapes, the government shouldn't prevent her from planting another type of crop. But she believes a greenbelt plan will do just that by designating her land for grapes only.

She was one of more than 30 farmers and representatives of large agricultural associations, wineries and environmental groups who spoke on the controversial plan and the task force discussion paper.

In outlining problems facing farmers, Hughes explained her family had to sell their grapes at break-even prices last year and she expects they will have to do so again this year and next year.

Doug Whitty, from his own experiences, worries the provincial government doesn't know what it is doing. He explained the greenbelt legislation is so poorly written that the City of St. Catharines interpreted the wording restricting new structures to mean he couldn't improve a roadside produce-stand tent at his Seventh Street farm

Melissa Tkachyk of St. Catharines, a member of Earthroots environmental group, was one of the few who spoke in favour of the plan, saying, "I think this plan isn't just about protecting the environment, but protecting farming." She added, "I don't want to be part of the generation that takes those opportunities away from the next generation."

But that is also a concern of the farmers, who see their present-day opportunities already threatened economically. If the government, in effect, freezes their assets without compensation, what opportunity does that offer their children and grandchildren?

Gracia Janes of the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society agrees there has to be compensation for landowners, making the point that "We don't just believe in saving the land, we believe in saving the farmer."

And in every argument, that must be remembered. How do we save farmers without allowing them to make a living, and, on retirement, to enjoy the financial fruits of their labour?

Agricultural lands are seen as a valuable resource, but they are also privately owned -- the majority by succeeding generations of families. If younger members of those families have no desire to take over the business, what will provincial restrictions do to their opportunities?

Yes, save the land, but don't forget the farmers and their families.