How to save the farm: More immigration, less suburbanization

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
February 8, 2000

Just as we direct immigration away from Canada and Canadian farms, we play God by replacing our best farmland with suburban sprawl

Interfere with natural cycles and court disaster. Today’s crisis in the family farm directly follows decisions to influence where, and if, people may live in Canada. Collectively, we all played God in absolute ignorance of the price to be paid down the road.

Immigrants, mostly land-grant settlers and homesteaders from Europe and indentured and hired labourers from Asia, built Canada’s agriculture industry. When farmers or their children left the farm for the city, another wave of immigrants, from another faraway place, was there to take over. They brought new dreams, new vigour and new technologies to farming, and continue to do so today. More than 10% of Canada’s farmers are foreign-born, and these are among our most entrepreneurial, and most successful, farmers. Of the landed immigrants who became farmers within the past 10 years, almost half manage farms with sales of more than $100,000 per year — a proportion that’s 50% higher than the average for all farmers. One in four of the recent immigrant farmers grosses more than $250,000, and one in 20 grosses more than $500,000.

While the number of family farms in Canada has been steadily decreasing, especially in provinces that don’t attract many immigrants, farming thrives near cities to which immigrants flock, in good part because immigrants create local markets for ethnic foods. Family farms are on the increase in Alberta, a province immigrants favour, especially near Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer. In British Columbia, thanks largely to Chinese and Punjabi farmers who settled near Vancouver in the fertile Lower Mainland, the number of family farms soared by 12.6% between the 1991 and 1996 census. Chinese-speaking farmers own more than half of the province’s mushroom farms and more than one-quarter of its vegetable farms. In Southern Ontario, vegetable growers produce 2,500 hectares of oriental vegetables to sate the demands of the 500,000 people of Asian descent who live in or near Toronto and Hamilton.

Increased immigration would bolster the family farm, yet instead of welcoming more newcomers, whose exotic tastes will then turn up in restaurants and specialty food shops, our society thwarts the natural process of immigration. In so doing we rob our farmers of customers for their crops, of workers for their fields and of purchasers for their farms when it’s time to retire.

Just as we direct immigration away from Canada and Canadian farms, we play God by steering local migration into prime agricultural areas, replacing our best farmland with suburban sprawl. Although the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is Canada’s most populous and most industrialized region, accounting for the lion’s share of the country’s economic output, it is also an agricultural powerhouse, producing 50% more farm output than Nova Scotia, 67% more than Prince Edward Island and 80% more than New Brunswick.

The great value of Toronto-area farms comes partly from the area’s climate and its soil. Most of the GTA is part of the 0.5% of the Canadian land mass considered Class 1 land — land that will grow almost anything — and virtually all GTA farms are in the 5% of the Canadian land mass classed as prime agricultural land. But even more importantly, GTA farms service Canada’s largest urban market, which has given the area Canada’s most diversified agricultural economy. The result: The GTA farm economy is viable in almost any economic environment, and it is largely immune to global trade wars. Unlike Saskatchewan, which depends on just three types of farming — wheat, small grains and cattle — for almost 80% of its farm economy, and which primarily produces low-value raw commodities in grim competition with lower-wage or more efficient producers, the GTA has no dominant farm type.

GTA wheat — an ancient variety called spelt found in the Horn of Africa — caters to Toronto’s Ethiopian population. GTA herbal remedies and organic vegetables stock the city’s health food stores. GTA horse farms serve pleasure riders and breeders. GTA exotic plants grace hotel lobbies and greenhouses in Rosedale mansions. GTA niche vegetables adorn plates in trendy restaurants. All told, the value of the GTA’s fast-growing specialty farming sector now matches its traditional farm production, such as dairy, pig and poultry.

Yet in its ignorance, the Ontario government is destroying this well-situated, inherently valuable farm economy through massive government intervention. As the historical land use patterns of the GTA show, after governments installed sewers, water systems and roads, suburbanization followed. Most of the suburban infrastructure that the provincial government has installed had no economic justification, and would not have occurred if land developers had been required to fully finance their expansions. Between 1976 and 1996, the province subsidized the conversion of 150,000 acres — one-sixth — of the GTA’s prime agricultural land. So, too, in Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and other urban centres. Without further subsidy, growth of suburbs — of which we have decades of surplus — would stop dead in its tracks everywhere in the country.

Yet instead of stopping the subsidies, governments are heaping them on, using them to spur developments at the behest of developers. At the same time, governments have been subsidizing the destruction of vast swathes of wilderness, ill suited to farming, to bring it into agricultural production. At great expense, we trash our high-value farmland; then we replace it with unsustainable farms, remote from markets, again at great expense. If we keep at this much longer, we won’t have the family farm for long.

But if we stop subsidizing suburbanization, the institution of the family farm will be secure. And if we learn to see immigrants as part of the solution — especially in Saskatchewan, which more than most provinces needs population growth and the diverse farm markets that new blood brings — the family farm can prosper around Canadian cities from coast to coast, more than it ever has before.

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