On May 18, the AFCC presented its recommendations concerning forest cover to the South Nation Conservation Authority. (Photo: Francis Tessier-Burns).

Breaking down the Agricultural Forest Cover Committee’s recommendations

Jacqueline Kelly-Pemberton says the agricultural community is “adamant” about staying in the conversation about clear cutting.

Kelly-Pemberton works as an agricultural representative with the South Nation Conservation Authority’s Source Water Protection program. She was appointed the chairperson of the Agricultural Forest Cover Committee, a 22-member committee created by SNC focused on developing strategies to manage the decline of forest cover in the region.

The committee was made up mostly of members of the agricultural community. Kelly-Permberton herself is co-owner of Pemdale Farm, a cash crop operation in Winchester.

The committee was created after South Nation approved a $100,000 special levy dedicated to forest conservation. It met every two weeks between January and April, for 35 hours in total, and came up with three priorities to help manage forest cover: Best Management Practices, Education and Promotion, and Stakeholder Engagement.

It produced two or three recommendations for each category with one overarching recommendation of creating a working group to include the agricultural community as well as municipal representatives in further discussions on forest cover. 

Best Management Practices

1) Update the Canada Land Inventory maps within the watershed

Canada Land Inventory (CLI) maps rate land on a scale from 1-7, with one being the most favourable for farming to seven generally being not farmable. The committee “supports the protection of classes 1-5 as farmable lands.”

The current maps were created between the 1960s and 1980s. The committee recommends the maps be updated to get a better sense of what lands are farmable and which are not. According to the committee’s report presented to SNC’s board of directors, about 60 per cent of SNC’s jurisdiction is farmed.

Kelly-Pemberton says the updated maps would also allow municipalities to make better planning decisions, “and from a (Conservation Authority) perspective, they can make target-focused areas for funding or improvements.”

However, updated maps won’t help if class 6-7 lands have already been farmed. 

The City of Ottawa currently has a pilot project to update land classes. The AFCC is recommending adopting a similar pilot project and reevaluate land by the end the year.

2) Develop best practices for land clearing

There are currently no best practices for land clearing in Ontario.

“Different OMAFRA articles have different recommendations (depending on the situation),” says Kelly-Permberton, “but not one solid document.”

When it comes to developing best practices, Kelly-Pemberton says those could be timelines for clearing, how to manage the debris (i.e. pile, burn, or chip), and best time to clear (winter time is recommended).

3) Encourage Windbreak Development 

For the last element under the Best Management Practices umbrella, the committee recommended finding more funding to promote planting windbreaks, though where that funding would come from wasn’t yet determined.

“We’ll look at every avenue to find out where that funding can come from, but there’s no dedicated funding at this time,” says Kelly-Pemberton.

Education and Promotion

“The committee felt the average person is so far removed from agriculture today and we’re terrible at promoting what we do, how we do it, and why we do it,” says Kelly-Permberton.

That’s why agricultural education and promotion “was identified by the AFCC to be the second highest priority to ensure strong and healthy forest cover in the region,” according to the report.

There are two recommendations when it comes to education and promotion. The first is that the proposed working group and local farm organizations promote agriculture to bring a “positive change in public understanding and more collaborative discussion about forest cover.” The second, that the working group “work with local schools, OMAFRA, the Conservation Authority, and local municipalities to promote agricultural education.” 

Agriculture is already known to be the backbone of the local economy; it’s also already known to be the most popular use of land, as outlined by the report.

“Publicly through the municipalities and the media, there’s been this focus on what agriculture is doing in land clearing, not fully understanding various drivers for that to happen… It’s not just because we want to, there’s different drivers for it: land prices, urban sprawl,” says Kelly-Pemberton. “I think agriculture sat back quietly, not saying the what and the why we’re doing it, so this way the outreach was agriculture first.” 

Stakeholder Engagement

Finally, the committee recommends creating a new “multi-stakeholder committee” with representatives from “groups/associations/governments and South Nation Conservation that have an interest in the topic of forest cover.”

When it came to the committee’s priorities, finding economic alternatives was at the bottom of the list.

“You have to look at the opportunities that are no longer here,” says Kelly-Pemberton. “We had a pulp and paper mill in Cornwall, less people are burning wood for woodstoves. There’s no current value on the product.”

She says that’s where the proposed new committee could come in—to find more value for wood. “Others may have information that we didn’t have at the the time.”

No dollars, no change

SNC’s board approved the recommendations presented by the AFCC. Its next step will be to look at funding programs that already exist.  

“That maybe can be done sooner rather than later,” says Kelly-Pemberton. “Some of the other recommendations require some partnerships within the municipalities, or to push provincially to get done. Those may be a little more long term, or they’re not going to move as fast.”

Like the working group, its creation “will be based on the will of the municipalities,” according to Kelly-Pemberton.

“If there’s no funding for the working group, they could just shelve it,” she says. Or they could work towards enacting the recommendations on their own—which could lead to a worst-case scenario for farmers.

“They don’t want to see haphazard bylaws,” she says. “Some farmers don’t farm specifically in one county or township. You don’t want to clear land and have to do one thing one way in one county and another way in another county, or even different things within the same field if it’s between two counties.”

The AFCC was an “opportunity to put forward some consistency across the watershed,” she says.

“We already operate under hundreds of different regulations, depending on your farm operation,” says Kelly-Pemberton. “Nobody wants to see more hoops or hurdles to have to jump through to grow food.”