TORONTO – If Toronto boosters ever achieved their improbable dream of obtaining provincial status for the city of more than three million people, it would be Canada’s seventh largest agricultural province, larger than any of the Atlantic provinces.
A report commissioned by several municipalities within the Greater Toronto Area, supported by local agricultural federations and published in September, said that in 2001, the 3,870 farms in the GTA covered more than 700,000 acres and produced gross farm receipts of $670 million and sales of $1.3 billion, including value-added.
By comparison, the largest farm economy east of Quebec that year was Nova Scotia with gross farm receipts of $420 million.
When the report was released in Bolton, Ontario agriculture minister Leona Dombrowsky said it was an indication of “the importance of agriculture to the region.”
And since most of the farmers produce for local markets and a metro Toronto area that is poised to expand, “it is important to have quality food products to feed Ontario’s expanding population.”
Although the GTA region includes livestock, grain, dairy and poultry farms, there are also many horse and pony operations and organic fruit and vegetable, flower and turf farms that are aimed at city residents.
Most are surrounded by urban development or are on land coveted by developers, making the farmers asset rich. Between 1996 and 2001, the value of the farmed land increased more than 17 percent to $6.1 billion, even as 50,000 acres were taken out of production.
Farm asset values in the GTA were the highest in Ontario.
But for all the good news, the municipalities and farm groups that sponsored the study also found trouble spots.
More than 1,000 operators – close to 17 percent – left the industry in the five years to 2001. The amount of land protected from development is shrinking and 155,000 acres have been freed from the existing base for development in the future.
As well, the land under pressure is top-notch soil.
“The agricultural land in the GTA is amongst the very best of a limited Canadian supply,” the study said.
“Its quality allows high productivity of crops that cannot be grown elsewhere. Agriculture in the GTA is an intrinsic part of our history. It makes a significant contribution to the area economy and to the environmental health and the quality of life for area residents.”
It also creates more than 30,000 jobs.
The affected municipal and provincial governments accepted an action plan to give farmers more support, help them identify “emerging consumer groups” in Toronto that have a demand for specialty products and promote local farm produce and raise the profile of GTA farmers within the large pool of Toronto consumers looking for local products.