Level of support for agricultural stakeholders and businesses depends on where they are in the Greenbelt region
By Kate Ayers
A wide variance exists across the province when it comes to support and resources that are available for ag stakeholders, a research team recently found.
A range in municipal capacity, meaning staff numbers, budgets, and expertise in the province causes these discrepancies and determines how well equipped a region is to address agricultural issues.
In the Greenbelt region, for example, “the needs and demands of farm operations vary significantly,” Dr. Wayne Caldwell said to Farms.com.
“Does agriculture get lost in the middle of trying to deal with the demands of these regions that have millions of people living in them? Some municipalities do it really well and others are so preoccupied by all of the urbanization that ag could receive more attention.”
Caldwell is a professor in rural planning and development at the University of Guelph and a member of the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs’ Greenbelt Council.
He, along with Elise Geschiere, Emily Sousa, and Regan Zink, gathered qualitative and quantitative information from 66 municipalities to explore municipal capacity to respond to ag issues. These three students are completing their master’s degrees in the school of environmental design and rural development at the university.
The team collected data through surveys and interviews from lower- and upper-tier elected officials and planners in the Greenbelt region, including Grey, Dufferin, York, Erin, and Bradford West Gwillimbury.
One of the group’s “key findings was that the number of planners in municipal departments can range from zero to 56. This range results in a huge variant in capacity,” Zink said.
“Some municipalities have staff dedicated to agriculture and others do not.”
Therefore, regions with staff exclusively dedicated to rural communities are better able to plan for the long-term success of farms, Sousa said.
These municipalities build “relationships within the farming community,” she added. Their staff know who to go to for advice and how to map workable ag policies. They reach out to farmers to gain their perspectives when council makes decisions and staff members network with ag and commodity organizations, Sousa said.
Indeed, people who are familiar with the industry are better able to provide support to producers and other ag stakeholders.
“Farm tours are helpful to go beyond planning and understand what happens on farms, and to show what policies look like on the ground and how they affect people in communities,” Zink said.
In addition to urbanization, other main issues that the ag industry grapples with include cannabis production and severance activities that lead to non-ag land development, Caldwell said.
Municipalities with adequate capacity have proper resources and “those topics get due consideration and proper reflection, and hopefully out of that comes good policy,” he said.
“Those municipalities that lack resources fall short in their ability to respond” and “the planning systems in those communities” can adversely affect the prosperity of ag in the region.
However, “where the community culture is connected to agriculture,” municipalities proactively try to make improvements for the industry, Caldwell said.
To help bridge the gap between municipal planners and farmers, stakeholders need to “humanize or animate the planning profession by bringing people into the process with public consultations,” Geschiere said.
Farmers’ “livelihoods are wrapped around plans and policies, so it is important to have their voices and lived experiences” at the table when municipalities make planning decisions.
“Policies and plans look different written down or on a map compared to what they look like on the ground,” Geschiere said.
To address capacity issues in Greenbelt regions, municipalities can create agricultural roundtables or ag advisory committees.
“Dufferin County, for example, has producer-to-consumer and ag business roundtables to look at the different types of relationships that exist within agricultural communities. Participants can bring forward ideas or concerns and discuss them directly with municipal staff,” Zink said.
The county’s planning staff developed this consultation approach when COVID-19 hit. The group has received positive feedback from stakeholders and plan to continue with this strategy into the future.
Informal community outreach is another effective approach to bring producers, planners, and other community members together to discuss pertinent topics, Geschiere said. Instead of having a set time and location to meet, municipalities can bring planners to the people for open interactions.
Overall, multi-level government and community collaboration are critical to build relationships and resiliency within the ag sector, the research team said.