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Dec. 8, 2019 | Sunday
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Local farmer questions acreage rules for farm wineries
Sal Florio says he'd like to be able to diversify his farm without being limited by an acreage requirement. (Dariya Baiguzhiyeva/Niagara Now)

With NOTL’s official plan in the final stages of completion, one local farmer is questioning the minimum acreage requirement for a farm winery.

The final draft of the official plan from December 2018 states an estate winery should be at least eight hectares or 20 acres. This acreage is needed to provide a “rural setting for the winery, land for the ponding water waste and associated vineyards,” according to the plan.

There is no minimum requirement for a farm winery in the final draft plan but the acreage will be specified in a zoning bylaw that will govern the implementation of the plan. The town and its planning consultants are leaning toward a minimum of 10 acres for a farm winery.

At a public meeting on Feb. 25, some speakers, like Debbie Zimmermann from Grape Growers of Ontario and Jamie Slingerland from Pilliteri Estates Winery, were in favour of minimum acreage requirements for both estate and farm wineries.

When Sal Florio, a local farmer, learned about these suggestions, he questioned the rationale behind a 10-acre requirement.

Florio’s total property is 7.9 acres with his vineyard taking up 6.5 acres. To keep his business alive, Florio wants to be able to diversify his farm and produce wine. But if the official plan sets a minimum acreage for a farm winery, he said he wouldn’t be able to do that.

Florio said he agrees an estate winery should have a minimum of 20 acres. A farm winery, however, is another matter. 

The difference between two wineries is that a farm winery is limited to growing, producing and selling wines made only from fruit that is grown onsite, according to the town’s official plan. Meanwhile, an estate winery can produce and sell wines made from locally grown fruit.

“Leave (the official plan) like that,” Florio said in an interview with The Lake Report. “And then farm wineries will go in and ask for a permit to be a farm winery and they will be assessed based on the setbacks and everything else that’s required. That’s the way it should be.”

According to a 2015 Planscape Inc. report, farm operating expenses both per farm and per acre in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 2011 were among the highest in the Niagara Region. The operating cost per acre in NOTL was $7,108.

“I’m losing money every year,” said Florio, but if he’s allowed to have a farm winery, even with just 6.5 acres, he said he would be able to produce enough wine that would make his business profitable.

The consultants’ report recommended the town ensure its land use policies and standards are flexible to “support ongoing management of smaller farm parcels.”

“If we don’t listen to that, we’re going to lose farmland and we’re going to lose the primary reason Niagara-on-the-Lake is so popular,” said Florio.

He said he also tried doing a virtual winery but “no existing winery was willing to help.”

For a virtual winery, it’s not required to have an actual land so winemakers can rent equipment and spaces at other wineries to produce and sell their own wine.

“If all I wanted to do is be a virtual farm winery who sells its wine online or at farmers markets, without having retail and visitors etc. but grow grapes and turn it into wine, then I would still need the AGCO license which would not be a problem,” said Florio. “But I would still not be allowed to operate as a virtual winery because of the Town’s 10-acre restriction.”

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario requires a vineyard to have a minimum of five acres.

The 2010 Nova Scotian Agriculture and Marketing Act, for example, states farm wineries should have a minimum of 10 acres. And, according to a 2011 B.C. wine law report, a minimum of two acres of grapevines must be farmed and used for a land-based winery in that province.

“It baffles my mind especially when I can apply for a farm winery to the Ontario government and all they ask for is five acres. And they’ll give me a licence,” said Florio. “Then I’m stopped because the town wouldn’t allow me to be a farm winery unless I have 10 acres. It’s ridiculous. ”

If the town or the region provides a proper logical response as to why it requires exactly 10 acres, Florio said he wouldn’t have any issues with it.

Kai Wiens, chair of NOTL’s agricultural committee, said the committee hasn’t received any concerns or complaints on the topic.

“The 10-acre and 20-acre concern hasn’t come forward from anybody,” said Wiens. “I think everybody’s comfortable with that unless somebody suggests they’re not. No one has presented the concern to us.”

Wiens said he thinks there should be a minimum acreage for farm wineries.

“There has to be a minimum because we have to have rules and regulations,” he said. “The rules of a farm winery have different opportunities and privileges than an estate winery, which then has different opportunities and privileges. So we have to keep that segregation in that fashion. That’s the reason there has to be an acreage.”

Craig Larmour, the town’s director of community and development services, said having minimum requirements would depend on land uses.

“(It depends) most importantly on the amount of land that can be cropped or planted in agricultural production. So if you have a parcel that’s too small, you might not be able to have a winery.”

Margaret Walton from Planscape Inc., the Bracebridge consulting firm hired to finalize the town’s official plan, said their team is recommending 10 acres.

“We look at the normal farm practices, parcels and the characteristics of this area,” she said.

“You want to have a certain amount of area to support some production because it all has to be a local product. It has to be a product off that farm. It’s a fairly standard number.”

Lord Mayor Betty Disero also supported having a minimum acreage.

“If there’s no requirement … we’d become more of a retail strip rather than a farming area. I want to try to keep the farms (as) the farms and focus on growing and farming rather than focusing on retail,” she told The Lake Report.

“There’s always been a requirement. It’s worked in the past and I continue to support it.”

Coun. Wendy Cheropita said in order to be financially viable, a winery can’t have less than 10 acres.

“It’s really a tough business to make money. That’s why we allow value-added activities like events and other activities because it is the only way the wineries can make a profit,” she said.

“The 10 acres is really to allow them to be financially viable and to have a sustainable business model. It’s to protect them. It’s to protect the wineries.”

Coun. Erwin Wiens, who is also on the agricultural committee, agreed that 10 acres should be the minimum.

“The wineries need to have grapes to make it a wine,” he told The Lake Report.

“So if you decrease the size, if you decrease the amount of grapes, it doesn’t make a winery sustainable.”

When asked if the acreage requirement is a way to protect big wineries from local farmers entering the business, Wiens said that wasn’t “accurate.”

The town is trying to promote 100 per cent Ontario-grown grapes, so “there has to be a minimum amount of grapes that we can make into wine. Just to make it affordable, sustainable,” he said.

The consultants will review all public comments regarding the official plan and will submit a report to council for a decision at a later date.

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