Task force endorses plan to preserve farmland, grow agriculture sector in the Edmonton region

· The Pulse
By Jackson Spring
in the Regional Roundup

An Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board (EMRB) task force has endorsed the final version of a plan to grow the region's agriculture sector while preserving farmland.

The EMRB will vote to approve the Regional Agriculture Master Plan (RAMP) on Aug. 12, which will guide the region's municipalities and industries on agricultural policy and practices over the next 30 years.

Rod Shaigec, the task force's chair and mayor of Parkland County, said that protecting and growing the agriculture sector is especially important as the region's population is expected to grow substantially over the next few decades.

"Agriculture is recognized as a vital sector to support new sources of revenue, contribute to economic diversification, job creation, attract new talent and business, as well as the economic goods and services it provides — which will become increasingly important as we recognize the effects of climate change," Shaigec said.

In developing RAMP, the task force found that the amount of land in the region devoted to agriculture had declined from 1.87 million acres to 1.679 million acres from 2001 to 2016, and projected it would decline to 0.9 million acres by 2046.

"Our analysis showed us that the change in agricultural land base would be catastrophic," said Sharon Shuya, the EMRB's director of regional growth planning.

To help conserve farmland, RAMP requires municipalities to coordinate land-use decisions, including how to subdivide rural land, assess soil quality, and limit urban sprawl, and consider how all land-use decisions might affect farmland. If the EMRB approves the plan and its recommendations are implemented, the task force projects that the agricultural land base will only decline to 1.58 million acres by 2046.

Projections of declining agricultural land base

A chart showing the task force's projections of the declining agricultural land base. At 1.68 million acres as of 2016, agriculture currently makes up the largest land use in the region, the task force said. (Courtesy of the Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board)

In addition to conservation, the plan also aims to grow both the agriculture sector and the food production sector, by diversifying and increasing the amount of food manufacturing and value-added agriculture that takes place in the region.

Edmonton Global has also identified the agri-food industry as an area with potential for economic growth and recommends increased investments into processes like plant protein fractionation.

The task force estimates that RAMP will help the economic output from the agriculture sector to increase from $11.42 billion in 2021 to $27 billion by 2046.

In June, the task force sought input from stakeholders in the region, 63% of whom were landowners. While the task force found that participants broadly approved of the plan, there were concerns that the municipalities would not adequately enforce the rules, and that some of the rules should be stricter.

"There was some skepticism that RAMP would actually be able to protect farmland," Shuya said. "Others largely believed that non-agricultural development (on prime agricultural land) should be prevented or at least restricted."

She added that the sub-committee in charge of reviewing this feedback felt that no significant policy changes to the RAMP would be required in order to meet these concerns. Minor adjustments were made to the plan, mostly around definitions of terms like "agri-tourism."

Shaigec was also confident that municipalities would be on board with the plan, and reinforced that it received input from both urban and rural perspectives throughout its development.

"It will necessitate change for all municipalities, and that can be difficult," Shaigec said, "but, as we all agreed, the status quo is not an option."

Members of the task force voted unanimously to endorse the plan with a few minor adjustments, mostly related to grammar and word choice.