Prime Agricultural Areas
This page provides an overview of prime agricultural areas, and how they are identified and designated based on agricultural policies in the Provincial Policy Statement, 2020 (PPS), Greenbelt Plan and A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe.
To maintain and enhance the geographic continuity of the agricultural land base and the functional and economic connections to the agri-food network, provincial policies have been established to protect Ontario's prime agricultural areas for long-term agricultural use. In the Greater Golden Horseshoe, Agricultural System policies apply. For more information, explore the Agricultural System further.
Beyond the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the PPS encourages use of an agricultural system approach but also facilitates alternative approaches that meet the intent of the prime agricultural area policies.
Learn about Prime Agricultural Areas:
- Designation of Prime Agricultural Areas
- Municipal Approaches to Designation
- Designation Process
- Size of Prime Agricultural Areas
- Non-agricultural Uses
- Economic Opportunities
Prime agricultural areas represent large, generally contiguous blocks of land that enable current and future opportunities for agriculture. They are characterized by the presence of:
- Prime agricultural land, defined as specialty crop areas and/or areas with Canada Land Inventory (CLI) Classes 1 - 3 lands;
- Other areas associated with prime agricultural land including CLI Classes 4 - 7 lands and additional areas with a local concentration of farms with characteristics of ongoing agriculture; and,
- Agricultural areas with organic soil (not part of the CLI classification system).
Small pockets of existing non-agricultural uses may be found within prime agricultural areas.
Figure 1. Sample map showing lands included in prime agricultural areas
- Prime agricultural land is mainly concentrated south of the Canadian Shield where high capability soils predominate; Northern Ontario also has some large areas of prime agricultural land and lower classed land with a local concentration of agriculture that may be considered prime agricultural areas.
- Prime agricultural areas are typically shown on a municipal official plan's land use schedule. Most official plans are available online.
- For clarity and mapping consistency across municipalities, it is strongly recommended that municipalities label their designation "prime agricultural area." However, other labels are sometimes used (e.g., "agricultural rural area," "agricultural protection area" and "agricultural area").
- To confirm the intent behind a designation of a different name, review the official plan policies and the land use schedule and/or consult with municipal planning staff.
- Prime agricultural areas in the Greater Golden Horseshoe have been mapped by OMAFRA in the Agricultural System agricultural land base map.
Designation of Prime Agricultural Areas
- The PPS and provincial plans (e.g., Greenbelt Plan, A Place to Grow: Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe) require that prime agricultural areas be protected and designated for long term use for agriculture. Municipalities must be consistent with the PPS and conform with A Place to Grow and the Greenbelt Plan.
- The province's preferred approach to designating prime agricultural areas in official plans is to have "prime agricultural areas" as a category of land use identified on a land use schedule or map, with corresponding policies in the official plan.
- Designating prime agricultural areas helps to ensure these finite, non-renewable resources are protected and considered when land use decisions are made.
- Designation of prime agricultural areas also provides information municipalities need to consider when land use decisions are made (e.g., settlement area expansions, location of infrastructure, and recognition of natural heritage systems).
- Information on the overlap between natural heritage systems and prime agricultural areas in the Greater Golden Horseshoe is available on OMAFRA's website.
Municipal Approaches to Designation
- Most municipalities with concentrations of prime agricultural land designate prime agricultural areas in their official plans. These municipalities must ensure the full meaning of "prime agricultural areas," as described above, is included in their designated area.
- In Southwestern Ontario, many municipalities designate all the land outside settlement areas as prime agricultural area. This reflects the widespread quality of the agricultural soils and prevalence of farming in the area.
- In other parts of the province, it is common for municipal official plans to have both "prime agricultural area" and "rural lands" designations. This usually means that the area outside of settlement areas has a broader mix of prime agricultural land and lower-capability land.
- In some cases, prime agricultural areas are designated and mapped in the lower-tier (e.g., town, city, township) municipal official plan but are not yet shown in the upper-tier (e.g., county, region, district) official plan.
- Some municipalities, primarily in Northern Ontario, do not have an official plan or only have a draft official plan. In these cases, it is best to consult the municipality and OMAFRA to confirm how prime agricultural areas are to be recognized.
Figure 2. Comparison of prime agricultural areas and rural lands
- A municipality usually starts the designation process by doing a study
to identify candidate areas for a prime agriculture area designation.
These studies typically involve analyzing maps and information such
- CLI classes to assess land capability for agriculture
- Lot sizes to assess fragmentation
- Existing land uses to assess the degree of agricultural and non-agricultural uses in the area
- Municipalities should work with OMAFRA when doing a study to identify prime agricultural areas. Guidance, technical advice and information are available.
- After prime agricultural areas are identified, the municipality amends their official plan to designate these areas in a transparent process with public notification and input. Normally this would occur as part of a municipal comprehensive review or official plan review in the Greater Golden Horseshoe and an official plan review elsewhere in the province.
- In the Greater Golden Horseshoe, OMAFRA mapped prime agricultural areas as part of the Agricultural System. Municipalities are required to designate these areas in their official plans in accordance with the provincial plans, Agricultural System mapping and implementation procedures.
Size of Prime Agricultural Areas
- Prime agricultural areas are working landscapes where normal farm practices are promoted and protected. Normal farm practices may include activities that result in impacts such as noise, dust, vibration, smoke, flies, light and odour that may not be compatible with sensitive non-agricultural uses.
- Complaints and conflict between agricultural and non-agricultural uses can impair agricultural operations. Having large continuous areas for agriculture is essential for normal farm practices to occur with minimum disruption from other uses.
- Many farm operators need to move large, slow moving farm equipment on roads to plant, cultivate, harvest and transport crops. It can be more dangerous and difficult for operators to work efficiently if fields are distant or if sensitive land uses or traffic issues exist.
- Some parts of the agri-food supply chain depend on a critical mass of primary agriculture in close proximity to remain viable (e.g., to ensure sufficient feedstock for facilities such as large grain dryers, distribution centres or food processors).
- For these reasons, provincial policy protects prime agricultural areas from non-agricultural uses and recommends that large continuous areas be reserved for agriculture.
- For the Agricultural System in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, OMAFRA identified prime agricultural areas as clusters 250 hectares and larger that have predominantly good soil, taking into account the amount of land in agricultural production and parcel fragmentation in the surrounding area. Outside the Greater Golden Horseshoe, the PPS encourages municipalities to use an agricultural system approach to foster a thriving agri-food sector.
- Smaller agricultural areas may not be prime agricultural areas unto themselves. They may be rural lands that together with prime agricultural areas help to create a continuous, productive land base for agriculture. In official plans, rural land designations typically allow for more types of uses than prime agricultural areas designations and provide opportunities to locate rural, non-agricultural uses where appropriate, outside of prime agricultural areas.
- Prime agricultural areas may include small pockets of non-agricultural uses within the working agricultural landscape such as golf courses, cemeteries, or commercial and residential lots.
- Existing non-agricultural uses in prime agricultural areas may have been approved before the current policies were in place.
- If permitted by an approved official plan and zoning by-law, these non-agricultural site-specific exceptions may continue, noting that they are limited to the type and scale of non-agricultural use that has already been approved.
- Being located within a prime agricultural area means that prime agricultural area policies also apply to sites with existing approved non-agricultural uses. Normal farm practices must continue to be promoted and protected and severances may only be permitted under specific circumstances.
- Proposals for new or expanding non-residential, non-agricultural uses must meet minimum distance separation formula I setbacks and demonstrate the need for the uses. Alternative locations must be evaluated to assess whether there are any reasonable alternative locations which avoid prime agricultural areas or, if avoidance is not possible, whether there are any locations within the prime agricultural area with lower priority agricultural lands. In addition, impacts from any new or expanding non-agricultural uses are to be mitigated to the extent feasible. These policies recognize that the long-term use of land in prime agricultural areas is intended for agriculture.
- If new non-agricultural uses are approved within prime agricultural areas (with the exception of settlement area expansions), they are to remain part of the designated prime agricultural area.
- Should an approved non-agricultural use cease, any land use planning applications to permit an alternative future use must be consistent with the prime agricultural area policies discussed above.
Figure 3. Prime agricultural areas may include non-agricultural uses
- The PPS and provincial land use plan policies provide many opportunities for the agricultural industry and rural economy to thrive.
- As prime agricultural areas are a finite, limited resource, agricultural uses are to remain the principal use in prime agricultural areas.
- A wide variety of agriculture-related uses and on-farm diversified uses are also permitted if certain criteria are met. These uses can increase income, create jobs and diversify the tax base.
- OMAFRA's Guidelines on Permitted Uses in Ontario's Prime Agricultural Areas help decision-makers implement provincial policy on permitted uses and highlight diversification opportunities.
OMAFRA's Agricultural Information Atlas provides easy access to agricultural information and a map-making tool for analyzing agricultural areas.
For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300