‘We are definitely at a crossroads,’ said the mayor of Essex.
Kevin Ross jumps out of his combine and runs to pull the tarp over the grain trailer full of canola that he has just harvested as rain comes down in sheets.
When he started farming 40 years ago, he knew the weather was going to be unpredictable. What he couldn’t have predicted is the rate at which farmland in southern Ontario would disappear.
“We are losing farmland around all the small towns in the county and we are not going to get that back,” he said.
Ontario loses more than 300 acres of farmland a day and farmers across the province have been sounding the alarm as the conversation around the need for housing gets louder.
Researchers have projected Windsor-Essex will need more than 30,000 homes by 2031.
Demand for housing
The Town of Essex’s mayor said they need the housing now as the small municipality grows by a couple thousand people every year.
“Particularly in Essex Ward 1, we have reached our settlement boundaries for residential development and almost our industrial development as well,” said Sherry Bondy.
Bondy said the last remaining plot of land is currently being built on and there is no room left to grow.
“We are definitely at a crossroads,” she said.
The town is looking at all infilling options but is also evaluating certain pieces of agricultural land that make sense for urban or industrial sprawl while minimizing the impact of tearing up farmland.
Up instead of out
There’s also the prospect of building up, instead of out.
Bondy said it’s become a contentious conversation in small, rural towns like Essex.
“Going up changes neighborhoods so it comes with a lot of resistance but is something that is necessary to accommodate all of our residents,” she said.
Paul Demczak, an urban planner that does work across southern Ontario, knows it’s a challenging conversation to have — changing the landscape of small towns that have largely remained unchanged over decades.
He said building up is the only option available if southern Ontario wants to keep its farmlands. He said it also makes more sense if existing service is already there making it easier to increase density.
“There’s a human component that happens with all of us … you get angry because certain things have changed or a certain restaurant you went to at one point in time is no longer there,” he said.
“I think we are going to have to deal with it as a culture because we are coming into a pretty challenging time,” he said.
It’s a concept that the Essex County Federation of Agriculture is pitching to municipalities. Last week farmers met with Essex County Council to share some of their concerns.
“There is only so much land around, they aren’t making anymore, that’s it,” said Leo Guilbeault, president of the organization.
This April the provincial government announcing proposals that would allow more housing to be built on Ontario’s dwindling farmland could build up to three new residences on their property.
- Available farmland shrinks with LaSalle’s booming residential development
- Residents fear homes, farmland in Ontario’s Hillman Marsh area will go under water without federal help
Politicians have since moved away from that after pressure from the farming community but Essex County farmers say that has not elevated any of the concerns, unless the government comes up with stricter farmland protection legislation.
“There will be less farmland around for the next generation to work,” Guilbeault said.
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