The most effective way to protect agriculture from growth pressures is to ensure that the industry is healthy, that a good living can be made from agriculture, and that the land base is secure. The first two requirements must be addressed through economic policy, the marketplace, and the efficiency of the farmer. Techniques to address the third requirement include:
- legislation to protect farmland;
- definition and enforcement of growth boundaries;
- legislation protecting agriculture (i.e., the Farming and Food Protection Act);
- voluntary area designation programs;
- long-term leases of agricultural land;
- clear, consistent planning policies with sufficient flexibility to allow the industry to evolve;
- conservation easements;
- property tax assessment based on productive value; and
- land stewardship programs.7
Ontario does have strong policies to manage growth. There is a tradition of managing growth and establishing firm growth boundaries. However the policies in the PPS allow redesignation of prime agricultural lands for "expansion of an urban area" if there are "no reasonable alternatives that avoid prime agricultural land." This weakens the growth boundaries in the long term, more quickly in the rapidly growing municipalities in the Central zone. Growth is seen as inevitable and these policies encourage incremental growth as development creeps out from the edges of established urban areas.
Planning policies that promote compact urban form in specific nonagricultural areas with non-negotiable growth boundaries can be effective in protecting agricultural land. These policies must be long term and consistently upheld to reduce pressure on agricultural land. Rather than implementing policies that address expansion of all urban areas as inevitable, where there is prime land, the boundary should be firm and growth directed elsewhere.
Ontario has little experience with programs that involve the purchase of development rights. This is in part because of the underlying principles upon which any property laws are based. In the United States, where the principle of private property rights is firmly established, many such programs have been implemented. However there are Canadian examples of programs to protect agricultural land in Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta. Study of these programs may provide some direction on effective tools. A study currently being conducted by Guelph University on this type should assist in identifying reasonable protection mechanisms.