Statistics Canada says Chatham-Kent farmland increased but locals say that’s impossible
CHATHAM-KENT— Did the amount of farmland in Kent County really grow by a whopping 44,000 acres in five years — or an astounding 88,000 acres in 10 years — as reported by Statistics Canada in the 2021 Census?
Farm leaders in the region aren’t buying it.
Kent’s farmland increased by 44,335 acres — or 7.5% — between 2016 and 2021, StatCan says. Cropland — a more restrictive measure that excludes pastureland, hayfields and bush — increased by 45,132 acres — or 8.1% — in the same period. The StatCan numbers between 2011 and 2021 are even more eye-popping. Over the decade, farmland increased by 88,066 acres or 16.6%, while cropland increased 85,420 acres or 16.1%.
Anyway you slice it, that’s a lot of new land to turn up in a county already intensively farmed for generations. Unlike some other areas of the province, there’s scant bushland left in Kent that farmers could push into to create new fields.
“It just doesn’t compute and it doesn’t make sense,” Kent County Federation of Agriculture President Jay Cunnigham said, adding his organization has concluded the StatCan data is flawed.
Cunningham said he hasn’t seen much land clearing, and none since his municipality brought in a “temporary” clear-cutting bylaw last year.
He also asserted that the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority identifies Kent as having planted more trees than have been cut since 2011, countering any theory Kent could have created thousands of additional farmland acres by clearing land.
“They’ve planted a lot more (trees) than were taken out,” confirmed Ron Faubert, another board member with the Kent County Federation of Agriculture. Faubert added that farmland acres in Kent have, if anything, declined as a result of housing development. Census Canada has previously reported that Ontario loses 319 acres daily to urban sprawl.
He suggested the 2021 Census suffered from more people reporting their Kent farm acreages than in the past, skewing the results. “So when they do a comparison … it’s not necessarily taken into consideration how many more people have answered the Census.”
“When I look at land around me, there hasn’t been much clearing in the last 5 to 10 years,” Chatham-area crop grower Mark Huston said. “You’ll see a little bit here and there, but when you see the amount going into housing or converted into industrial parks and stuff, it (the Census figure) doesn’t seem like it passes the truth test.”
Based on his own experience with the census, crop farmer Gus Ternoey speculated that Kent County respondents might have reported land not previously counted as farmland in prior censuses because the land categories were not as clearly delineated this time. Ternoey observed that 2021 “was the first year Census Canada didn’t send out the normal package, and a lot of it was done by phone,” suggesting this could have changed the way people answered the questions.
He also noted that acres from neighbouring counties might have padded the Kent County tally if respondents owned land in more than one county. This theory aligns with StatCan’s confirmed method of assigning all of a farm’s land holdings into the single county or region where the farm is headquartered. This fact “could result in some perceived inconsistencies related to the allocation of land and commodities … from census to census,” the agency said by email.
Because of the policy implications, Chatham-area hog, egg and cash-cropper Louis Roesch expressed concern at the message that Kent’s farmland inventory could have swelled by tens of thousands of acres. “It’s a bad call … All that says is go ahead, build more roads, put up more houses because the land’s growing,” Roesch said.
“It’s a total negative towards the reality of what’s happening,” he said, adding that development is already “happening like crazy” in the county. He also estimated that, at most, Kent lost 1,200 acres of bushland to agriculture in the previous decade.
Kent County is the most extreme example of reputed farmland and cropland growth in southwestern Ontario, but it’s not alone. StatCan also counted 10 other counties posting acreage increases in terms of cropland.
All told, Southwestern Ontario counted just over 6.26 million acres of cropland in 2021 — up 2.55% (or 155,831 acres) over the 6.11 million acres of cropland recorded in 2011, StatCan reported. The 2021 gure also represents a small 0.31 % gain on the 2016 Census, which tallied 6.25 million acres of southwestern Ontario cropland.