Alberta's best farmland lost to urban expansion, U of A study finds

Development on the outskirts of Edmonton is paving over the province’s most valuable farmland, new research at the University of Alberta shows.

Much of the best farmland lost on outskirts of Edmonton; the loss is partly due to proximity to cities

Alberta's best farmland is being paved over in favour of development, a study at the University of Alberta has found. (Paul Dornstauder/CBC)

Development on the outskirts of Edmonton is paving over the province's most valuable farmland, new research at the University of Alberta shows.

The loss of the highly productive land is hard to avoid, considering a lot of it is just outside of Alberta's major cities, said Brent Swallow, an author of the study.

"We're blessed with this great land around our city, but it means when we grow the city that we're going on to the best [agricultural] land in the province," Swallow told CBC's Edmonton AM Monday.

Swallow and his team looked primarily at the area between Calgary and Edmonton, where most of Alberta's development is happening.

The researchers used a nationally-adopted soil-rating system to determine the most valuable farmland.

They found that between 1984 and 2013, the amount of land used for urban or industrial purposes between Edmonton and Calgary grew by 52 per cent. The urban area of Calgary had also tripled in that time.

Expansion peaked in the 80s, but the upward trajectory has continued into the aughts, with more than 625 square kilometres of land converted from agricultural to urban or industrial use between 2000 and 2012.

"The last 10 years has really been a continuation of trajectory that started in the 80s and has continued on," Swallow said.

Of land developed in that 12-year period, 35 per cent of it was the highest quality farmland, while 34 per cent of the land was in the second-best category.

Brent Swallow, one of the authors on the study, says expansion was at its highest in the 80s, but there's still an upward trend today. (Alberta Land Institute/YouTube)

Swallow said geography is partly to blame. Edmonton in particular is surrounded by great farmland, meaning expansion outwards is bound to pave over high-quality land.

The growth in various areas of the region, including Fort Saskatchewan's industrial area, Acheson industrial park and residential expansion on the south end of the city is eating up rich farmland.

There is also the dilemma of municipalities selling off land or developing it to meet a bottom line, Swallow said.

Farmland tax

As part of the report, Swallow and his team surveyed 320 Edmonton-and-area residents about the loss of farmland.

"A majority of people indicated that they thought we were spreading out too quickly and were willing to pay something as a one-time increase on their taxes to conserve that land," Swallow said.

As Swallow and the researchers move into their next phase of research, they're hoping to have more conversations with municipalities to figure out the challenges they face — including meeting that bottom line.

If their research showed them anything, it's that there's an appetite to come to a middle ground that minimizes the growth on valuable farmland while continuing a decent pace of development.

"There's more recognition now of the need to conserve the great land that we have," Swallow said. "People see the land not just for its agricultural production value, but also for the ecosystem services that that land provides to the city."