Should we pay for land protection?

A Senate committee on rural poverty holds a hearing near Brockville, Ont.:

Geri Kamenz, president of the OFAGeri Kamenz, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and a farmer from the Spencerville area, urged the committee to consider “strategic investments” in areas beyond basic food production, such as developing ingredients for alternative fuel sources.

Guaranteed farming income would be a “abject failure” but he added that government should pay farmers to preserve plants, animal life and water sources on their properties, rather than simply be legislated to do so, he said.

This last point strikes me as elemental fairness. If you own a piece of property and the government adds new restrictions on what you can do with it, for the common good, the common good owes you some consideration back. As it is, when new regulations come in that would, say, expand the areas considered protected wetlands, it’s very directly in landowners’ interets to destroy the wetlands in question before they get protected.

It’s all very nice for those of us who live in cities to talk about restricting people’s uses of their property in places we don’t live, but we should be willing to put our money where our mouths are.

I wonder, in fact, whether some kind of ongoing payment out of the common weal might make sense, rather than the one-time compensation you sometimes hear kicked around. After all, we want it to make economic sense for landowners to actively protect sensitive land that’s in their custody. If you could actually make a profit on creating new wetlands and whatnot, we might see a whole new kind of green entrepreneurship.

Some people from local landowners’ associations — in Ontario, these are the groups that blockade highways to complain about regulations and demand more subsidies — raised an interesting objection to the supply-management quotas to which all the major political parties swear fealty:

Others argued that supply management and other regulation was keeping farmers from making a living.

“We need to have the ability to market directly to the consumer,” said Jacqueline Fennell, president of the Leeds and Grenville Landowners Association and a Spencerville-area dairy farmer who is trying to open a raw milk cooperative.

Raw milk is also regulated for health reasons — seems to me it’s OK as long as consumers know that they’re getting something unpasteurized and with no scientifically proven nutritional advantage over the regular stuff, but the government disagrees — but Fennell’s argument makes sense. You buy a share of the provincial quota for tens of thousands of dollars on the assumption you’ll sell into the existing food-processing system in one way or another, which makes all kinds of experimentation even more financially risky than it would normally be.

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