Raising Cain

The provincial growth plans have focussed on the cities but “there’s been nothing about the spaces in between,” he says. “If we want farming to be an integral part of the GTA, the province has to turn its attention to the next step, which is creating a viable protected countryside economy.”

June 20, 2008 | | Back Issues

The loggerhead shrike, an endangered species in Ontario, has no friends in the Landowners Association who chainsawed their potential habitat in order “to protect the market value” of the land. Photo by Robert McCaw.

The loggerhead shrike, an endangered species in Ontario, has no friends in the Landowners Association who chainsawed their potential habitat in order “to protect the market value” of the land. Photo by Robert McCaw.

Pity the poor loggerhead shrike. An endangered species in Ontario, there were only twenty-four nesting pairs in Ontario in 2006. It does have friends, among a wide variety of conservation groups and foundations, and there are signs it’s recovering. But the bird, which nests in open pasture and scrubland and is about the size of a cardinal, has run up against angry members of the Ontario Landowners Association who don’t want their lands officially designated as shrike habitat.

In May and June of last year the landowners chainsawed about forty acres of brush and trees on two properties in Glengarry County to “protect” the land from designation and “preserve” its market value.

Since then, the group boasts it has clear-cut about 9,800 acres across the province, with a target of clearing 24,754 acres of private property in the months ahead to avoid the “risk” of having the land designated as habitat for any of the species on Ontario’s endangered list.

It’s the kind of militant tactic that isn’t likely to garner much sympathy from an environmentally concerned public, but it does attract attention. And attracting attention is one of the key goals of the OLA.

Founded in 2006, the organization has its roots in eastern Ontario, where a group of landowners began protesting against what they felt were unwarranted and unnecessarily intrusive government regulations that restricted their property rights.

The landowners are not so righteously irked just because of the possibility of having their land designated as habitat for endangered species and taken out of production, or worse, finding themselves on the wrong side of the Endangered Species Act – the penalty for a first offence is a fine of up to $250,000 and/or as much as a year in jail.

They also resent the fact the government inspectors can come onto their land – often without a warrant or the owner’s consent and with the power to seize, expropriate and control – to investigate claims of animal cruelty, to stop them from producing and selling food outside regulated channels, and to review their compliance with The Clean Water Act.

Under the provisions of that act, a first conviction for activities deemed a threat to groundwater carries a minimum fine of $25,000 per day, and a farm or business can be forced to cease operation immediately.

“Today’s rural society is being choked to death by increasing legislation and regulation,” founding president Randy Hillier declared at OLA’s inaugural convention in March 2006.

The group quickly embraced a boisterous form of civil disobedience and a shoot-from-the-hip public relations strategy that might go down well in the small town coffee shops and over the farm gate, but risks making them easy to dismiss as a bunch of red-necked yahoos.

But dismissing them could be a mistake.

The conflict has taken on all the symbolic overtones of rural vs. urban, of the little guy vs. big government, of private rights vs. public good.

And the OLA has also successfully made it a conflict of Conservatives vs. the McGuinty Liberals.

Last August, OLA vice-president Jamie McMaster declared that the Liberals “have had their heads in the sand for years pretending that there isn’t a property rights problem in rural Ontario, and when you’ve got your head down there, your arse is in the air, and rural landowners are in a kicking mood.”

The message struck a chord among many voters, enough of them that Randy Hillier ran successfully for the Conservatives in last fall’s election and now sits as critic for both rural affairs and municipal affairs and housing.

That kind of electoral success is just one indicator that beyond the destructive publicity stunts and bombastic chaff that largely typify the OLA web site (www.ruralrevolution.com), the populist group is raising serious issues that reflect deep currents of disaffection and strain running through the rapidly changing urban/rural social and cultural dynamic.

And OLA members are not all chainsaw-wielding, tobacco-spitting yahoos, just as not all environmentalists are Birkenstocks-with-socks types either. In fact, many of the landowners consider themselves proud environmentalists who feel they have been forced to take up reverse-Greenpeace-style tactics to get attention.

As in other rural communities, OLA signs dot the countryside around Headwaters. In bold red, white and black they proclaim “This Land is Our Land” and “Government: Back Off!” But the signs do little to reflect the complex nuances of some of the landowners’ considerably more thoughtful concerns.

When, for example, you walk with Charles Hooker across his fifty acres on the Maples Road west of Orangeville, you’re in the company of a principled conservationist and nature lover.

Since retiring from the military and moving here ten years ago from Ottawa, he has done an Environment Farm Plan, attended workshops on forestry and woodlot management, acquired a shelf of books and brochures about trees, wetlands and various aspects of environmentally sound property management. On his farm he has planted over 17,000 trees. He even worked with the Credit Valley Conservation Authority to build a customized conservation plan for his property.

Hooker is immensely proud of his accomplishments, but also deeply worried by what he perceives as an increasing burden of legislation and regulation that threatens to restrict how he manages his property. He pulls out a list: the Niagara Escarpment Plan, the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act and Plan, the Greenbelt Act, the Places to Grow Act, the Provincial Policy Statements, the Conservation Authorities Act, the Nutrient Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act – and even a local tree-cutting bylaw.

Hooker’s biggest concern – and what led him to join the landowners’ association – is the protection of property rights. In particular, he notes that there is little or no recourse or mechanism for appeal if your right to use or enjoy your land is altered by government fiat.

So what? It’s not like he’s applying to open a gravel pit, erect a wind turbine, develop McMansions, dig a garbage dump or spread pig manure.

In fact, one of the things he’s trying to do is save the American Chestnut, an endangered species in Ontario. Hooker is secretary of the Canadian Chestnut Council and believes that one way to preserve the species is to hybridize it with Chinese varieties that are blight-resistant. According to a recent federal report, however, hybridization is seen as a threat. Hooker worries that well-meaning preservationists might be in conflict with the Endangered Species Act if they planted a Chinese-American hybrid (and so risk that $250,000 fine).

Hooker disagrees with the way the legislation is worded, but he’s unlikely to raze his woodlot to make a point. Rather, he’s a persistent writer of letters-to-the-editor with a quiet but firm faith in the power of the written word.

While Charles Hooker is quiet, polite and given to literary battle, Jim Turner, president of the Dufferin Landowners Association, says he is open to more boisterous tactics.

The owner of an automobile repair shop in Corbetton, Turner cites a range of issues and incidents that have stuck in his craw: his property taxes are skyrocketing, tobacco farmers are getting a raw deal, a cricket club gets a $100,000 grant “while farmers starve,” cattle prices are too low even while we allow foreign food to be imported, inspectors are marching onto property without warrants… and so on.

If Charles Hooker is a focussed laser, Jim Turner is a Gatling gun. Discussion papers, research studies, task forces: these are not his bailiwick. His list of grievances is long, but he admits it’s a challenge to get the media interested and to galvanize the eighty members of the Dufferin chapter into more aggressive action.

Farther south Lynne Moore and her husband, Jim, run a 120-head dairy cow operation on 200 acres on Heritage Road near Terra Cotta. She is a driving force behind the Peel-Halton Landowners Association.

As for civil disobedience, she’s “not sure whether it accomplishes a whole lot.” Her preferred approach is to get involved and to get people on side through education.

A candidate for the provincial Conservative nomination in Dufferin-Caledon last year, Moore’s main concern is that farmers and landowners don’t understand the implications of all the changes that are happening and how, in her view, they threaten private landowners’ ability to use their lands.

When land is designated a wetland or habitat for endangered species or a natural heritage feature or a floodplain or a part of the Greenbelt, its use is restricted but the landowner receives no compensation.

The Peel-Halton Landowners Association, which currently has about twenty-five active members, argues that claims for the “public good” – clean air, clean water, green spaces, etc. – “must be balanced in relation to private ownership” and that “the public should pay compensation to the affected property owners.”

Ian Sinclair and Lynne Moore, both members of the Peel-Halton Landowners Association, erect one of the organization’s signs. The signs, with their bold message, have sprung up on farm fences around the countryside. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Ian Sinclair and Lynne Moore, both members of the Peel-Halton Landowners Association, erect one of the organization’s signs. The signs, with their bold message, have sprung up on farm fences around the countryside. Photo by Pete Paterson.

For Ian Sinclair, landscape architect and former Peel regional councillor for nine years, it’s the way the legislation, regulations and policies are implemented that is the trouble.

A director of the Peel-Halton Landowners Association, Sinclair has a master’s degree in environment and resource studies. He has a lot of sympathy for the landowners’ associations.

In particular he feels that landowners are not shown enough respect in the process, that there needs to be a much better dialogue with people whose land is affected.

The problem arises, he says, because “it costs money and it takes time to consult.” But if you’re serious about conservation and environmental protection, Sinclair says, “you should recruit farmers, don’t threaten them with epaulettes and tasers.”

He argues that landowners should be compensated if the enjoyment and use of their land is taken away or restricted in the name of producing “ecological goods and services” on behalf of the public.

And he cites other costs farmers and other landowners may incur in the name of environmental protection. They include crop losses due to restrictions on “normal farm practices,” such as drainage, or using fertilizers and pesticides; crop and livestock losses due to increased wildlife populations; liability for harm to species at risk; and losing the use of land around municipal wellheads on their property.

(Although there are government compensation programs for wildlife damage to crops, animals and property, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture says they “fall far short of what farmers need.” In 2000, the Ontario Soil and Crop Association reported wildlife damage on Ontario farms represented a loss of $41 million.)

Sinclair also argues that rural municipalities in the GTA should be compensated for the development potential and tax assessment lost in protecting the “green infrastructure” of woodlands and wetlands that the province says should represent 30 per cent of their land base.

According to Elbert van Donkersgoed, executive director of the Greater Toronto Area Agricultural Action Committee, “It’s up to society to decide whether we’ll pay for environmental goods and services.”

“There’s a big opportunity,” he says, “for society to develop a new relationship with landowners.”

Although Europe is advanced in this area, van Donkersgoed says, “it will take a mind shift here to recognize that there is public value on private lands.”

Both Sinclair and van Donkersgoed point to Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS), a model which pays landowners to allocate up to 20 per cent of their land for conservation. First developed in Manitoba by a farm group and a waterfowl preservation organization, the concept is being piloted in Ontario in Norfolk County.

The local federation of agriculture and the Norfolk Land Stewardship Council are working with a farm family to fence off land around waterways, improve wildlife habitat and plant native grass species for grazing. The farmers share some of the cost but they also get paid to maintain the project over its lifespan.

Vic Janulis, a spokesman for the Norfolk Federation of Agriculture, says ALUS “is designed to conserve environmentally sensitive areas by recognizing and rewarding farmers who deliver environmental benefits, such as cleaner water and air, abundant wildlife and an attractive rural environment for all to enjoy.”

What makes ALUS revolutionary is that it goes a step beyond the Environmental Farm Plans (EFPs) that many farmers have completed in recent years. By and large, EFPs provide cost-share funding for one-off projects, while the ALUS concept is that farmers are paid regularly for providing ongoing services over the life of the program.

But ALUS is still in the formative stages and for many farmers, particularly those in the Greenbelt, the big question is the whole future of farming and whether it can remain viable in the face of encroaching urbanization and increasing legal and regulatory burdens.

Lynne Moore recalls the battle waged over the Greenbelt when it was first being developed. At the time the Peel Federation of Agriculture argued that more needed to be done to help make farms viable. The fear was, and remains, that the Greenbelt will create “small isolated pockets of arable land” that will become “non-viable due to the long distances and heavy traffic volumes involved in moving equipment and obtaining services.”

Today’s modern farm, they pointed out, is “extremely capital intensive” and requires a range of support services, such as “veterinarians, seed suppliers, seed cleaners, feed mills, equipment dealers, specialist technicians, etc.,” all of which are becoming increasingly rare in the GTA.

It’s a tough situation for farmers. They’re under pressure to curtail what they consider normal farm practices such as spraying, tilling and fertilizing where they may cause noise, dust, odour. They’re being required to set aside land to protect wildlife, water sources, natural heritage and green space with little or no compensation. And they have to deal with trespassing, crop damage, garbage and heavy traffic from urbanites who, it is felt, have little respect for or appreciation of the farming way of life.

But how is their predicament different from what any other rural property owner faces? Don’t we all have to abide by the same laws? Where does the right to farm stop and the right to clean air, water and land begin?

For Dave Lyons, a former Peel regional councillor whose family has been farming for generations on the Peel plain, it’s easy.

“Ask them,” he says, referring to those who question why farmers should be treated any differently, “ask them how they make their living.”

The gentrified rural inhabitants can “afford to live a lifestyle in the country,” he says, but farmers depend on the land for their livelihood.

In early April, about eighty such farmers showed up at the Orangeville Fairgrounds for a meeting hosted by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture to discuss proposals to expand the Greenbelt across several other municipalities that are seeking inclusion.

At the meeting, farmers made no bones about their anger and frustration over a number of irritants. People from the city, for example, will “push down fences, pick our apples and dump garbage.” They complained that not enough is being done to enforce trespassing laws. They also expressed concern that environmentalists control organizations such as the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation and are winning the media relations battle.

In the end, the OFA’s submission on Greenbelt expansion calls for, among other things, studies on transportation issues, economic impacts and the broader viability of farming in the province. It warns that developers are leapfrogging the Greenbelt and snapping up farmland in places such as Brantford. It suggests a surcharge on development charges be levied to help offset the costs of brownfield clean up and development.

Interestingly, the OFA finds common cause with a recent report from the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, which looked at greenbelts around the world and recommended that there be programs to support farmers to develop innovative business ideas and to assist them with conservation.

The study was commissioned by the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, a not-for-profit corporation set up by the province when the Greenbelt was created to “help foster our Greenbelt’s living countryside by nurturing and supporting activities that preserve its environmental and agricultural integrity.”

It is funding farmers’ markets, eco-friendly farming practices and product promotions, among a wide array of activities to promote the Greenbelt. There has been considerable grumbling among farmers that Friends of the Greenbelt is a little too cozy with environmentalists (though a look at the grant recipients reveals plenty of farm-related projects).

However, while the farming community is deeply skeptical about the Greenbelt and its acolytes, it does support the basic goals of preserving productive agricultural land and limiting urban sprawl. Ian Sinclair, for example, sees no conflict between his support of the rights of private landowners and his equally vocal opposition to a developers’ lobby group that proposes to increase the population of Bolton over the numbers set out in Caledon’s official plan.

For farmers in the Greenbelt who want to keep farming, the problem is complex. The market value of their land has fallen along with its non-agricultural development potential. And because developers are looking look beyond the Greenbelt, the farmers can’t sell and move elsewhere as profitably as they might have before. Hemmed in and increasingly isolated, farmers find it difficult to carry out normal farm practices without offending neighbours. Nor is it easy to operate as the number of support services and other basic infrastructure declines.

Elbert van Donkersgoed argues that provincial growth plans have focussed on the cities but “there’s been nothing about the spaces in between,” he says. “If we want farming to be an integral part of the GTA, the province has to turn its attention to the next step, which is creating a viable protected countryside economy.”

Getting food into the city, he points out, means you need a “better transportation system.” As well, you need to “reawaken the urban population’s interest in locally grown food,” which is a large part of van Donkersgoed’s role with the GTA Agricultural Action Committee.

“Look at the Ontario Food Terminal,” van Donkersgoed says. “It has been used mostly for imported food. Why can’t we refocus it on local products?”

It’s hard to gauge just how big a role compensating farmers for their environmental stewardship really plays in maintaining the viability of agriculture, that is, at the upstream end of a food industry dominated by global corporations and machinations on distant stock markets.

What is increasing clear is that, without compensation, along with other initiatives to protect the viability of farming, and without dialing back some of the more draconian measures that have so inflamed other rural landowners, the laws designed to protect the environment may ultimately have the reverse effect.

Ontario’s Endangered Species Act was hailed by environmentalists as the most progressive legislation of its kind in Canada – but it may be the undoing of the loggerhead shrike.

About the Author More by Tony Maxwell

Tony Maxwell is a freelance writer who lives in Mono.

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