Understanding ag

Posted: December 1, 2017 at 9:01 am   /   by   /   comments (1)

Dodie Ellenbogen grows vegetables on her small farm on Elmbrook Road, north of Picton. She sells “green leafy things” such as arugula, kale and bok choy at her farm stand and various occasional markets around the County. The young mother of a little girl, she grows an unusually wide array of vegetables—some, admittedly, have never crossed this carnivore’s plate. Daikon? Lovage? Frisée?

Dodie admits she is still learning how to nurture the earth to create produce that folks will pay more for. In economic terms, she is adding value to a commodity—and in doing so is expanding the market for fresh, organic vegetables. Food that simply tastes better.

Dodie is working hard to be a wiser farmer, to become embedded in the life systems rather than working against nature. Dodie and her partner, Michel, seemed to be doing good business at Midtown Brewing Company’s Outdoor Holiday Market in Wellington on Saturday.

Dodie and her young family represent one of the ways farming is changing. Innovating. Adapting.

Andrew Stronach is a Bay Street investment banker and financier. He owns thousands of acres of farmland in the County and elsewhere in Canada. So, does the Thomson family—with a net worth of about $26 billion. These folks have about as much in common with Dodie Ellenbogen as carrots and diamonds, in as much as both are dug up from the earth.

There is clearly a big difference between farmland owners and farmers. It is why simply tweaking the municipal tax code for the entire farmland tax class is such a bad idea.

Stronach and Thomson—and many other large farmland owners, including Bob Hunter north of Wellington, aren’t the folks we tend to see in our mind’s eye when we think about farming. Though by sheer size of their land holdings, these folks represent a far more significant share of the County’s farmland than does Dodie Ellenbogen and every other organic producer combined.

So, what is it that council is hoping to achieve when it ponders tinkering with municipal tax codes, to transfer farmland tax increases onto residential and commercial properties? Who, precisely, are they hoping to benefit?

Seemingly lost in the debate at council a couple of weeks ago was the question put by Sophiasburgh councillor Bill Roberts.

“Where’s the County’s agriculture strategy?” asked Roberts. It is a good question. Perhaps the most important one in this entire debate.

There is no question or debate that agriculture has been central to Prince Edward County’s economy throughout its history. It remains a vital economic driver, even as the family farm has consolidated over the past few decades into fewer hands.

The sector is also diversifying, with ever more wine, hops, cheese or market garden operations sprouting up each year. A little further up the value chain are fine food makers and processors. Bread makers, beer makers, cider makers, spirit makers, sausage makers, kombucha and kimchi makers are taking goods nurtured in this soil and finding eager markets for their jams, preserves, loaves, and sauerkraut.

Of course, commodity growers—corn, soy bean and wheat—continue to dominate the County landscape. But it strains logic to the breaking point to suggest, as John Thompson does, that County homeowners should pay his property tax increases because global commodity prices are volatile.

Furthermore, farmland values are rising across North America because farmers value this land more. The Municipal Property Assessment Corporation (MPAC) only considers sales between bona fide farmers when evaluating the value of land subject to taxes. Despite the volatility in commodity prices, the predominant sentiment among farmland owners is positive—as evident in the upward value of their land.

There can also be no doubt that agriculture will remain a vital engine for the County’s economy in the decades ahead. Indeed, agriculture will certainly remain central to the County’s identity and brand.

So, let’s look at it. Let’s understand better what agriculture means in Prince Edward County today and where it is headed. Let us look at the supports in place— and ask ourselves if they still make sense today. Are they doing the job they were originally designed to do? Are they still relevant?

Several councillors have said they want to target any relief to the farmers who may face the greatest peril from the increased value of farmland. Smaller farmers. So, let’s look at minimum lot sizes.

Let us clearly identify the agriculture activities we want to nurture—and figure out how to do it effectively. Let us not scatter taxpayer dollars carelessly upon some of the richest landholders in the County—indeed this country.

There is a deep well of pride and appreciation for the County’s rich agricultural heritage—for the men and women who work hard every day, against fickle weather, miserly soil and unpredictable markets to reap a profitable harvest from this land. There is a deep desire among County residents to ensure this remains central to the County’s traditions and story.

So, let us sit down. Let us do the hard work of defining a made-in-the-County agriculture strategy. One that recognizes that this sector has changed and that it continues to evolve. Let us frame our agriculture policies and supports so that they reflect the ambitions of folks like Dodie Ellenbogen rather than Andrew Stronach. He will be fine without our help.

Comments (1)

  • December 8, 2017 at 9:24 am S Wood

    So you want to pick and choose the types of businesses allowed in this County?? My family has farmed here since 1857. We milk cows and crop a couple thousand acres. It’s taken 6 generations to get to where we are today. This farm supports 3 households and supplements a fourth. Are we now considered “too big” and not boutique enough for the County we have contributed to for over one hundred years? Are we not trendy enough to bother ensuring my nieces, the 7th generation, can work our land, without having to feel the wrath of our own community because we are seen as too big and making too much?

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