The Farm as Cultural Heritage Landscape, part one

A sketch of a farmIllustration from Perth County Historical Atlas, 1879

Ontario’s farms are the creations of immigrants of varied backgrounds who often showed distain, if not outright hostility, for their neighbours. The landscape mirrors this outlook: no residential farm villages, a system of public roads that bypass farm buildings, and private lanes leading to them. Building sites varied with local conditions but tended to be set well back on the lots. Here was privacy, freedom from the “disagreeable necessity” of gazing at one’s neighbour, and security from passers-by helping themselves to the orchard or kitchen garden.[1] 

After a bit of a summer hiatus (hope you had one too!), we’re back at it this time with a look at the Ontario farm and specifically its protection as a cultural heritage landscape.

Unlike many other landscapes — roadscapes, riverscapes, corridor-scapes (like the ones in “Rails and Trails” from last time), and so on — the traditional Ontario farm at least has well-defined edges. Typically the farm is on a lot of about 100 acres. One property with set boundaries.

From a protection standpoint this may make things much easier — since you’re dealing with a single property there will be a single owner/ownership. Not surprisingly then, the vehicle of choice to protect historic farmscapes is individual designation under Part IV of the OHA, rather than the more cumbersome heritage conservation district designation, which in theory could also be used. (In fact, district designation, and the HCD plan that it requires, may in some ways be more suitable for farms — large, complex properties with a variety of cultural and natural resources.)

It may surprise you that about 50 Ontario farms have been designated under Part IV. Although very few of these are “whole” farms (or even large parts of them).[2]

One of the more intriguing things about the designation of a farm in its entirety is the questions it begs about the ongoing use of the property. Unlike buildings or structures, which usually are able to accommodate different functions over time with little or no effect on their cultural heritage value, “farm” connotes a particular use or kind of use — agricultural — and in the Ontario context a particular assemblage and arrangement of elements (some of which are touched on in the quotation above) to serve and support that use. But surely you can’t protect use for farming under the OHA? That’s a zoning matter, right?

We’ll come back to this.

An image of a red brick farm houseBanting Homestead farmhouse, New Tecumseth, Ontario

Perhaps the most famous farm designated under the OHA is the Banting Homestead near Alliston. The 100-or-so acre farm was the birthplace and boyhood home of Sir Frederick Banting, the co-discoverer of insulin. The whole farm was designated in 2007 following a landmark Conservation Review Board hearing and report.[3]

At the CRB pre-hearing stage the Town of New Tecumseth and the Ontario Historical Society Foundation, the owner of the property, agreed to the protection of about five acres of the property containing “the house, barn, piggery, silo, henhouse, implement shed, cow shed, garage, rail fencing, yard, commemorative markers, and immediate cultural heritage landscape features. This was not to include the cultivated fields.”

About the rest of the farm there was no agreement. The position of the Town was to designate the whole 100 acre property “including all buildings, cultural heritage landscape features, and cultivated fields.” The Foundation, which clearly contemplated the development of much of the property for residential subdivision purposes to support its stewardship of the site, wanted the designation limited to the five acres with the farmstead/buildings.

The Board’s job was “to determine if the approx. 95 acres containing the cultivated farm fields, Black Walnut shelterbelt, American White Elm tree, other plantings, infrastructure, archaeological resources, and other remnants of past farm cultivation by the Banting family warrant designation under section 29 of the Act.”

A family photo infront of a farm house in 1910The Banting family and friends, circa 1910 (young Frederick at left front)

There were two arguments for the protection of the whole farm. One was that the farm met the then-new 9/06 criteria for physical/design value as a “representative” example of an early twentieth century farm. The other was that the farm met the criteria for historical/associative value because of the “direct associations” with Sir Frederick and his discovery.

Apparently the first argument was weak and the second compelling. The Board concluded that:

The evidence in this regard [i.e. on the “representative” question] was presented in a way that was secondary to the association of the farm to the achievement of Frederick Banting. The argument that this property, as a typical Ontario farm, holds cultural heritage value apart from its Banting association was not well developed.

The Board is of the opinion that the association of the farm with Frederick Banting should form the primary reason for any protection under the Act. The identification of the subject property as typical of an early 20th century Ontario farm may be more relevant to an educational interpretative theme than a reason for protection under the Act.

To reach this conclusion the Board accepted the contention that the farm fields were significant despite major changes from Sir Frederick’s day.

With respect to the fields, the main question was whether the 95 acres of cultivated fields, as they existed in 2007, were intrinsic to the commemoration of Frederick Banting; or had they been so altered to now be remote from his sense of place at the farm during his lifetime. [The] witnesses acknowledged that the farm in 2007 is not the same farm experienced by Frederick before his death in February 1941.

[Witness A] views a farm as a hierarchical arrangement of spaces or zones. In her opinion, to be considered a whole farm, all of the spaces or zones must be represented. She acknowledged that the Banting farm had evolved from dairy and mixed farming to a monoculture (potatoes) and fully mechanized farming methods. This involved changes such as the removal of the fencing that defined the smaller fields known to Frederick.

In her opinion, [aerial photographs, historical archaeology, etc.] could be used to restore the farm to a period of significance to Frederick.

[Witness B] established that Frederick Banting’s sense of place at the farm would have been one of diverse smells, sounds, sights, and tactile experiences far different than the “farm factory” that exists today. In his opinion, the fields could hold cultural heritage value only if restored to their state during Frederick’s youth.

Sufficient evidence was given to substantiate that Frederick’s father, William Banting, was innovative in his approach to farm practice methods and that he used experimentation to instigate change. … The Board is of the opinion that successful and economically viable farming involves innovation and change, whether it is season-to-season crop rotation in response to field conditions and market demands, or adopting advancements such as hybrid seed, pesticides, and automation. Evidence was given that William’s interest in experimentation fostered the same in his son. It seems to the Board that although Frederick would not have experienced the state of the cultivated fields as they were by 2007, he would have accepted the changes in farming production and practices that evolved the farm to its current state.

This was the crux of the case. Did the 2007 fields have direct association with Banting and his achievements even though the fields were configured differently and growing different crops? The Board decided that they did because previous changes in the evolving agricultural landscape of the farm would have been part of Banting’s experience growing up (and — in what seems a bit of a stretch — contributed to his interest in scientific research and investigation). In other words, while Banting had little association with today’s specific fields and crops, he was directly connected to and familiar with the evolution and innovation in farm practices on this farm.

So much for past changes to the farm. On the question of future changes — and use for other purposes — the Board had some important things to say.

Designation under section 29 of the Act does not guarantee the continuing existence or preservation of all elements of this farm property. Natural degradation will take its toll over time and maintenance of unoccupied lands can be costly.

Designation is not intended to prohibit any future site alteration or development on the property. Provisions of the Act enable change within the context of a review and consent process. The Board recognizes that not all designated properties are best as static museums or historic sites. Often, their ongoing stability, viability, and historic integrity are the result of innovative alteration, development, and use. …

Put differently, conservation of the farm did not rule out alteration, development and changes in use. And that’s not all.

It was evident to the Board during the site visit that the historic integrity of the viewscape from the dwelling and yard looking south/southwest has been compromised by the residential subdivision along the south boundary. The Board is of the opinion that should there be any proposed development on the Banting property, it would be appropriate to direct this to the area abutting the existing residential development at the south and that a buffer area be landscaped to mitigate any negative impact on the heritage attribute of the viewscape from the Banting dwelling and yard.

Here the Board is pushing (if sincerely) the envelope of its mandate — suggesting where new residential development might go on the property! Hmm, sounds like something a plan might do…

In 2008, the year after the Board’s decision and the designation of the property, the Banting Homestead was sold to the Town of New Tecumseth. In 2009 consultants for the Town completed a master plan “to develop an overall plan for the use of the entire property and for the ongoing maintenance and restoration work required in respect of the buildings.” In public hands, the site is now the Banting Heritage Park. The fields? They continue in agricultural use.

More farm designations next time…

An image of a farm and fieldFarm near Millbank, Ontario

Note 1: From Looking For Old Ontario by Thomas E. McIlwraith, 1997, page 241.

Note 2: Fifty-one to be precise, as of June 2018, according to Ontario Heritage Registrar Erin Semande of the Ontario Heritage Trust.

Erin responded to an email query about designated cultural heritage landscapes generally with the following comments:

“It should be noted that finding a designation bylaw that uses the terminology ‘cultural landscape’ or ‘cultural heritage landscape’ is very rare. These properties [listed below], while not explicitly described in their designations as Cultural Landscapes, could be considered cultural landscapes based on the examples provided in the definition of cultural landscapes in the PPS. This is by no means an exhaustive list of all cultural landscapes, but indicates that there is recognition and protection for the types of properties that could be considered cultural landscapes.”

She provided the following summary, taken from a slide presentation:

Ontario Heritage Act Excerpt

A cursory review of the designations of farms and estates on the Ontario Heritage Register reveals very few designations of whole farms or of farms specifically including fields.

Note 3: The CRB decision can be found here

Having reached its conclusions about the heritage values of the property, the Board amended the Town’s statement of cultural heritage value to delete references to the farm’s “representative” importance. It also rewrote the description of the heritage attributes of the property. The long list of attributes, including several views, starts with an overarching one:

“The overall appearance of the property as a farm, with a driveway entrance, and a dwelling, outbuildings, and associated cultural heritage landscape features surrounded by farm fields….”

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About Dan Schneider

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Dan Schneider is a heritage enthusiast, policy wonk, writer and professional heritage consultant. Formerly senior policy advisor with the provincial culture ministry, Dan has much experience with the Ontario Heritage Act and heritage policy issues. A lawyer by training, he was lead policy expert on major changes to the Ontario Heritage Act in 2005 and 2006. His advice is frequently sought on questions related to Ontario's legislative and policy framework for heritage. Based in St. Marys, Ontario, Dan is Principal of Dan Schneider Heritage Consulting. He can be reached at