Do more to save farmland, say two new reports

U of A study says hundreds of thousands of acres have been lost while Senate committee calls for help for young farmers

A pair of new reports are urging government to do more to save good farmland from being lost to agriculture.

And there’s a lot that has been lost already, according to researchers at the University of Alberta.

“Analysis of satellite imagery shows that between 1984 and 2013, the amount of land in urban uses in the Edmonton-Calgary corridor increased from 3,127 square kilometres to 4,763 square kilometres, an increase of 52 per cent,” says a report from the university’s Alberta Land Institute.

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That 1,636 square kilometres of urban expansion translates to 404,264 acres.

And while the rate of urban expansion around Calgary, Edmonton, and Red Deer was highest in the first part of that 30-year period, the demand for residential and industrial land in the Highway 2 corridor continues to be ravenous, with just under 155,000 acres lost from 2000 to 2012.

“Some of the good news is that everything else (being) equal, the best-quality lands were less likely to be converted than lower-quality lands,” said co-author Brent Swallow, a professor in the agricultural life and environmental sciences department.

“Nonetheless, much of the land converted out of agriculture during the 2000-12 period was prime cropland.”

Researchers at the Alberta Land Institute are now working with municipalities on planning tools — such as maps that overlay farmland loss with zoning designations — Swallow told the university’s news website.

Using remote sensing to assess the quality of farmland and then using that data for land-use planning is one of the recommendations in a new report from the Senate standing committee on agriculture.

Federal departments such as Agriculture Canada and StatsCan should work with their provincial counterparts “to take advantage of initiatives such as the national research project on farmland protection, in order to enhance the tools they need to better track land transactions,” says the Senate report titled A Growing Concern: How to keep farmland in the hands of Canadian farmers.

The Senate report also focuses on the challenges faced by young farmers trying to acquire land. The committee, which heard from dozens of witnesses (including Alberta Federation of Agriculture president Lynn Jacobson), also recommended Ottawa consider “increasing the amount of the lifetime capital gains exemption for qualified farm property to make it easier for new farmers to acquire farmland.”

The current lifetime capital gains exemption for qualified farm property is $1 million.

“This tax exemption may facilitate farm transfers. However, considering the large average size of farms and the rise in the value of farmland, this tax exemption is not sufficient to enable the financing necessary to increase the amount of farmland under cultivation and therefore keep farms viable,” the committee’s report states.

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