Guest Column: Losing prime farmland: Albertans are concerned

In the fields just past the Seed Cleaning plant and train tracks on Thursday morning.
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As Alberta’s cities and major towns grow, so too does their footprint on Alberta’s rural landscapes.

A recent report by the Alberta Land Institute contains new insights into the extent of farmland conversion and fragmentation in the agricultural “white zone” of the province. The report completed by a team of University of Alberta professors, including myself, along with graduate students shows that urban land use pressures have been particularly acute in the areas around Edmonton and Calgary and the corridor area along the QE2 Highway.

Between 1984 and 2013, the amount of land in urban or industrial uses in the Edmonton-Calgary Corridor increased by 52 per cent, while the urban area of Calgary tripled. While the pace of conversion of farmland into residential and industrial uses was highest in the 1980s, more than 625 km2 of land was converted from agriculture to residential or industrial uses between 2000 and 2012.

The main drivers of agricultural land loss in the corridor were population growth, price of agricultural land, road density, degree of fragmentation and land quality.

Everything else equal, best quality lands were less likely to be converted than lower quality lands.

Nonetheless, much of land converted out of agriculture during the 2000-2012 period was prime crop land. 35 per cent of the converted land was of the highest land suitability class and 34 per cent of the second highest land suitability class found in Alberta.

This is partly a matter of geography. The Edmonton region, in particular, is located in an area of very rich soil good for farming, making it difficult for urban areas to grow without encroaching into high quality agricultural land.

The report shows that fragmentation of the rural landscape is also increasing in the corridor area.

The proliferation of rural residential properties is mostly to blame. At the same time, fragmentation outside of the corridor decreased as average farm size increased and pastures were cultivated for crops.

There’s no doubt, this is an issue many Alberta residents care about.

A survey of 320 urban and rural residents in the Alberta Capital Region revealed considerable concern. Survey respondents indicated that it was important to maintain agricultural land for production of food for local markets, air quality, water purification, scenic beauty and production of food for the global markets.

Responding to a choice experiment about their willingness to pay for farmland conservation, about 80 per cent of the respondents indicated that there were willing to make a $20 one-time contribution toward farmland conservation in the Alberta Capital Region. Over 50 per cent were willing to make a $300 contribution. Respondents were willing to contribute the most to conserve land used for vegetable production, followed by rolling grasslands used for livestock grazing, and by crop and hay land.

Municipal councils are at the front line of decision making regarding farmland preservation in Alberta.

Both the Alberta Land Stewardship Act and the Modernized Municipal Government Act make municipalities responsible for developing land use plans and designating allowable land uses. Land use plans and decisions should protect both prime farmland and areas of high environmental value. Municipalities also consider tax revenue and service costs.

While individual land owners and developers look for development opportunities, municipal councils need to consider the broad public interest, including the food production and environmental service values of farmlands. The study team is now working with specific municipalities to better understand the challenge of making short-term decisions that are consistent with long-term objectives.

Dr. Brent Swallow is a professor at the University of Alberta as a member of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences.

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