Guest blog: Joel Fridman, University of Toronto
On May 14, three hundred people packed the Royal City Ballroom at the Delta Hotel in Guelph, Ontario for the Exploring Rural Land Use Conference. The conference, presented by the University of Guelph’s Institute for the Advanced Study of Food and Agricultural Policy based out of their Department of Food, Agriculture, and Resource Economics (FARE), sought to engage “the historic discussion about the role of individuals and hand of government” in enduring issues of rural land use. Members of Ontario’s agriculture, business, planning, civil society, academic and government sectors attended to take part in this discussion. The guiding questions for the day included the price of farmland in Ontario, the dominant trends in farmland use, and farmland ownership.
The day was divided into three sessions. The first morning session explored land prices, and the dominant factors affecting the farmland market. Among three speakers in this session, Marleen Van Ham, a real estate appraiser, gave “the dirt road perspective” on trends in the land market based on sales. Among some insightful conclusions, Van Ham shared what she called “wild cards” in the land market, noting the uncertainties with respect to how wind turbines, solar farms, the greenbelt, urban sprawl, and the growing hunger of urban investment firms for rural land, will affect the land market going forward.
The second morning session focused on rural land governance, concentrating on provincial policy framework for severances, land subdivision and a core planning issue of surplus residences on rural land parcels. Sarah Willhelm, a planner in the development department of the County of Wellington, evocatively put the question to the audience: will new residential lots affect what farmers can do on the land in the future?
The final session focused on property rights. Speakers presented on the history of the Property Rights Movement in Ontario, providing a staunch reminder of the historic tensions associated with balancing private property rights with public interest in land use.
In a keynote address, Chief Robert Louie of the Westbank First Nation and Chairman of the First Nations Land Advisory Committee shared the latest news on the Framework Agreement (FA) on First Nations Land Management. The FA is a government-to-government arrangement committed to in 1996 and passed in the Federal Parliament in 1999. Through the development of Land Codes, the FA recognizes a First Nation as the legitimate Government over their lands and resources, assuming jurisdiction to make, administer, and enforce their laws. Each First Nation is responsible for developing their Land Codes. 39 First Nations are in the operational stages of the FA, while 30 are in the development stage. Daniel Millete, a strategic planner of the First Nation Lands Management Resource Centre also spoke of opportunities to meld western planning methods with indigenous land values for the betterment of planning practices and resource management in First Nation Reserves.
Overall, the conference provided a healthy discussion of pertinent issues demanding attention, and participatory engagement. With this in mind, however, sometimes absent from such discussions of trends and pressures on rural land use is the opportunity to step back and provide important context to the conversation. What kind of food system do we want, and more importantly, what kind of food system do we need? Rural lands are where our farmers grow our food, and the policies surrounding farmland use structure the kind of food system that is possible. This context for decision making will be neglected at our peril.
Presentations and slides from the conference can be accessed here (http://www.uoguelph.ca/fare/institute/presentations.html)