By Connor Lynch
NORTH HURON — If a farmer is gearing up for a fight with his municipality over a bylaw or zoning issue, looking over provincial laws probably isn’t his first instinct.
But that might be a mistake. Provinces set the rules. Even if local government has been likened to the Wild West, there are still rules that can catch them up.
The township of North Huron in Huron County is embroiled in this very problem. Two Amish farmers in the area have been duking it out with the township over how many livestock they can have on the farm.
The township has a bylaw that says a farmer can have no more than 2 dairy heifers, 1 dairy or beef cow, or three dairy calves on one acre of land. The two Amish brothers allegedly exceeded the limit, having the equivalent of 27 dairy heifers per acre on their farm. After an anonymous complaint and no less than seven visits to the property by the chief building inspector, the farmers found themselves squaring off against council in court.
But there’s an open question if that limit is even allowed to exist. Toronto-based environmental lawyer Eric Gillespie said that municipalities may be able to make rules, but the only power they’re allowed to have is what the province or federal government gives them. A section of Ontario’s Nutrient Management Act explicitly states that there can be no restriction on how many animals a farmer is allowed to have on his operation, except where that Act allows. So, municipalities are only allowed to restrict how many animals a farmer has when the province has said they’re allowed to.
But, Gillespie cautioned, the law was designed to allow for discretion. “I would be surprised if there are any firm guidelines in how to apply it.” And the Nutrient Management Act is a long one, with plenty of provisions.
Similarly, a section of the Farming and Food Protection Act offers farmers some protection against municipalities. “No municipal bylaw applies to restrict a normal farm practice carried on as part of an agricultural operation,” it reads.
That leaves the decision in the hands of the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board about whether something is a normal farm practice or not. OMAFRA offers only general guidelines as to what is or is not a normal farm practice. In essence, if your farm does things similar to other farms, you’re probably OK.
Farmers who can make a strong appeal to provincial law have a good shot at winning their case, Gillespie said. Agriculture is considered to be in the provincial interest, not the local one, so courts favour the provincial position over the municipal one.