Preventing farmland from development comes with a price

Conservation easements that protect farmland from development increase in cost if near a major highway or large city.  |  Getty photo

COCHRANE, Alta. — Farmland is still being paved over as urban development continues between Edmonton and Calgary.

The result is fragmentation and soaring land values as more people want to be close to a highway and the amenities of a large city, said Brent Swallow of the University of Alberta.

His research found 3,127 sq. kilo-metres were taken up with a surge of development starting in 1984. By 2013, the urban landscape had increased to 4,763 sq. km.

“Land use changes to developed use was highest during the 1984-92 period,” he said in Cochrane at the recent annual meeting of Action for Agriculture, a group dedicated to farmland conservation.

The greatest fragmentation of farmland has occurred around Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary. The slowdown in recent years was due to more intensive urban development within city boundaries rather than farmland conservation.

“Across the rest of Alberta overall, we would conclude that fragmentation actually went down because of the concentration of fragmentation around the big cities,” he said.

Swallow’s work has also studied the value of agriculture land for the last 15 years as well as the costs of conservation.

Land buyers are willing to pay more to be near a major highway and a large city. They want good buildings, soil quality, irrigation and higher net farm income.

“Almost all the variables we found affecting asking price had to do with what it is like to live on that place and where it is located.”

There is low development value in southeastern Alberta.

“If you were trying to do a conservation easement to buy out land there, to prevent development, you wouldn’t have to pay much,” he said.

Proposed conservation easement costs near large cities were much higher.

Many decry the loss of productive farmland, but Swallow said there is a limit to what people are willing to pay to conserve it.

In interviews with more than 300 people living near Edmonton, most agreed there is too much development in the capital region.

Eighty-five percent said they would pay an extra one-time fee of $25 on their property tax bill or rent for land conservation to support local food production, improve air quality and protect water.

They were most interested in saving land for vegetable production followed by livestock and grain.

“They were more interested in conserving land they can see from the highway than areas of higher conservation value,” he said.

His next research project is focusing on municipalities near Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie to talk about farmland conservation and what trade-offs they might favour. He also wants to conduct a province-wide survey to gauge Albertans’ opinions about farmland protection.

Other research through InnoTech Alberta (formerly Alberta Innovates) is looking at the value of agricultural land and ecosystem contributions to national gross domestic product.

An environmental accounting framework allows for the inclusion of ecosystems as a form of wealth to society, said Marian Webber of InnoTech.

Agriculture contributes $28 billion to gross domestic product, but national wealth and food security are threatened as further farmland fragmentation occurs.

“We need to worry about how globally we are going to feed people. You can see this per capita change in agricultural land per person over the next 50 years,” she said.

“Can we afford to lose our most productive farmland, which is where all urban centres are around the world.”

Land that is lost to urban development is not replaced.

However, even as available arable land declines, agriculture productivity on the Prairies has increased by more than half in the last 50 years because of genetic improvements, irrigation and nutrient and fertilizer management.

It is now starting to plateau.

“Agriculture has become much more productive, but since 1990 productivity growth has been stagnant at .59 percent over that whole period,” she said.

The cost of producing food in-creases as land productivity de-clines and requires more inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides due to groundwater depletion and soil erosion.

There has been a high rate of grasslands and wetlands loss since 1990, so more researchers are starting to ask about the value of those ecosystems and what people are willing to pay for conservation to encourage water quality and wetland preservation.

Webber said assigning an economic value to those areas and conservation practices could result in them being included in the natural capital accounting and ultimately gross domestic product.

As well, the Alberta government wants to know if inclusive wealth measures could be a measure of competitiveness in the Alberta economy.

The future of agricultural land accounting as part of the national GDP is murky.

“Until we have a theory on how our general behaviour and practices contribute to sustainability in the future, then I think we are going to have a hard time developing standardized frameworks,” she said. “We are going to have to continue studying it and showing people the value of natural capital on agricultural land.”

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