Original Published on Jul 11, 2022 at 08:13

By Rachel Morgan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Rav Singh wakes up at 6 a.m. every morning to start farming—earlier if another heatwave chokes the air, something she says is becoming more common as the climate crisis worsens. 

The work she does on her rented plot of land depends on the season. In the spring soil is prepared and seeds are planted for what will hopefully be a bountiful summer, when the harvest happens. In the fall she plants cover crops or garlic and readies the farm for the coming cold.

When the sun is swallowed by the horizon earlier and earlier there’s not much to do over the waning months. 

These days, she tries to spend at least five or six hours at the farm, but likes to leave by noon when the oppressive heat and humidity often arrive.

For the 29-year-old who holds a degree in environmental science, her calling allows her to be outside, in nature, where she feels at home, while also contributing to the local food supply, which she worries about more and more.

Singh has fears for the future of her farm. She isn’t the only one.

In April, the Region of Peel voted to approve its Official Plan which sets the strategy to accommodate growth out to 2051, a document that included the controversial provision to expand the Region’s urban boundary into almost 11,000 acres of farmland and greenspace in north Brampton and across parts of Caledon. It was a move protested heavily by local residents who urged councillors to consider the environmental consequences of their actions—the Region’s urban growth is inching ever closer to the protected Greenbelt—and the detrimental impact of urban expansion on the Region’s promised climate targets. 

Councillors ignored their constituents. Only Caledon’s Annette Groves voted against the plan, after listening to what scores of residents said. 

The urban expansion was underpinned by amendments made by the PC government under Premier Doug Ford to the Places to Grow Act in 2020. These legislative changes forced regions like Peel to create a forecasted development plan for 30 years—an unprecedented timeframe in Ontario’s urban planning that threatens to allow bad decisions based on population projections that will never happen. The 2021 Census shows these forecasts are already way off, as Peel’s population has not swelled nearly as high as the numbers used for Ontario’s current land-use needs assessments. 

The amendment, and others like it made by Ford—whose close ties to the development industry are well documented—opens the door for unsustainable forms of development, like urban sprawl, that are not needed to accommodate realistic population gains.

“During an unprecedented pandemic, where people have been focussed on health and safety and trying to make ends meet while working in a virtual world, the Ford government has irresponsibly and inappropriately engaged in a systematic dismantling of Ontario’s planning and environmental legislative and policy framework,” wrote Victor Doyle in an op-ed in The Pointer in May. “It has commandeered and squandered the ability/right of future generations to plan their future by committing us to a massive, permanent, new wave of sprawl—all while limiting and/or overriding our democratic rights.”

But while Peel would love to blame the expansion solely on the Ontario government, the accusation would not be accurate. Previous reporting by The Pointer has shown that regional councillors—despite admitting their reticence about the plan, and seeing the actions of municipalities like Hamilton which ignored the PCs and froze urban boundaries—did little to push back against the urban boundary expansion that will destroy thousands of acres of farmland across much of the region.

The future growth will have dire impacts on Peel’s agricultural areas at a time when Ontario is losing farmland at a rapid rate, driving up the need for imported food (which is costlier), leading to a continued rise in the need for services like those provided by the Mississauga Food Bank. 

Many farmers say they want to sell, and using their land for development ensures a comfortable retirement after recouping property values worth ten times more for subdivisions, compared to the going price for agricultural spaces.

It’s hard to find future farmers among younger generations, they say, but that only adds to the growing reality of food insecurity across much of the province.

Peel is home to some of the most fertile soils in Ontario and its urban boundaries pass through the protected Greenbelt. Livestock is the Region’s largest agricultural sector with beef, dairy and equine industries accounting for 33.1 percent of Peel farms, according to data from the Region. In addition, 25.7 percent produce oilseed and grain crops. Another 24.3 percent produce fresh flowers, maple syrup, honey, and fruits and vegetables from greenhouses. 

“Farmland is a finite, but diminishing resource, and the availability of prime agricultural land is fundamental to Ontario’s future,” reads a press release from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). 

The loss of prime agricultural land is not exclusive to Peel. The province of Ontario is losing 319 acres of farmland every day, almost double the average of 175 acres per day in 2016, according to data from the OFA. This is the equivalent of about nine family farms each week. In 2006, Peel Region had 482 farms. By 2016, the region had 408.

The urban expansion into 11,000 acres of farmland and greenspace will have a huge impact on the region. Eleven-thousand acres is just over one-sixth of the size of Peel itself. 

Proponents of the development that will be erected on these properties argue the land is being underused and would be better suited for residential or commercial activity. Much of the land in north Peel was scooped up by land speculators years ago, while some of it is rented to farmers for agricultural uses, other plots sit vacant. 

Other residents argue that regardless of the current use, the rich soils should be preserved for agriculture.

“Even though people call it the white belt, and it’s been sitting there, sort of waiting to be developed, it doesn’t change the fact that the soil is actually prime farmland soil,” said Jenni Le Forestier, a co-founder of Stop Sprawl Peel.

The consequences of sprawl can be felt well outside the urban boundary. Even for farms located in the north end of the region there will be negative effects. 

“There’s definitely a trickle-down impact to the farming that’s even north of where the expansion is,” said Le Forestier.

The urban expansion in Peel will see the typical construction of subdivisions, a web of asphalt-covered local road networks and commercial features. The development of Highway 413 and other smaller roads will pave the path for more vehicles, sending more pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions into the local airshed. The salt used on all the roads and other chemicals associated with the urban built form will bleed into local watersheds. These pollutants eventually find their way into the soil and groundwater or settle into the crops of adjacent fields. 

These are just a few of the fears expressed by Phil Winters who owns Goodlot Farmstead Brewing Co. in Belfountain. He talks about the importance of having greenspace intertwined with urban areas.

He likens the relationship to the organ that allows humans to breathe.

“I think of this north end of Peel, and now this farmland and Greenbelt that surrounds the GTA and steel region, as being those lungs,” Winters says.

Data from the Credit Valley Conservation Authority show that the northern reaches of Peel Region are relatively healthy in terms of indicators for tree canopy, water quality and habitat for wildlife, while all of these measurements degrade in the region’s southern, more developed parts. Urban development will threaten these northern lungs.

One of the proposed developments that is of particular concern to farmers and environmental activists is a new Amazon warehouse.

The sprawling Amazon warehouse, which will take up over 390,000 square meters, will spread across the Dixie and Old School Road area in the south end of Caledon, just north of the boundary expansion.

While the mammoth storage facility is taking a lot of flak, housing developments will have just as much impact on the environment with the need to tear up land and submerge sewage and water systems, while surface infrastructure for transportation paves the way for more carbon emissions. Spread out housing not aligned with previous recommendations for compact communities, will have to be constantly heated and cooled, requiring even more carbon for energy.

“If you’re going to build a housing community, you better build it as densely as possible. It better be high rises and condos and affordable living, not just these giant houses that are making developers rich,” Winters says.

“Vegetables aren’t going to taste very good if you’re constantly having these massive trucks going by kicking up dust and pollution,” Le Forestier added.

When Winters first purchased Goodlot in 2009, he commuted from Belfountain down to the north end of Mississauga to work another full-time job. In his commuting days, he personally witnessed 9.6 kilometres of prime agricultural land be bulldozed for development.

“It broke my heart as a farmer looking at that thinking that land will never be reclaimed, that is some of the greatest agricultural land on planet earth,” he says.  

Peel has some of the richest soils for farming—and a rapidly growing population that needs to be fed.

Ontario is a top producer of three main crops: soy, canola and corn. Paving over these farms will mean these food staples won’t be available for export when places around the world need them.

The act of buying local is becoming more popular as people look for individual ways to help the environment. 

Winters noted a trend in the transition away from big mega-farms to smaller, local farms. 

“[These farms] are creating relationships directly with either farmers markets in their communities, or restaurants or smaller scale distributors who want to deal with smaller farms,” he says. 

These small-scale farmers markets are one of the reasons Singh got interested in farming in the first place. She recalls visiting farmers markets and being able to purchase her common produce such as lettuce and tomatoes, but having to stop at the Indian grocery store on the way home to purchase the ethnic foods she needed. 

It revealed another key need for food sovereignty that farms such as Singh’s, where she cultivates bittermelon and okra, fill. 

“Obviously we can’t grow things like mangoes and coconuts here. But there are a lot of what people would call ‘cultural crops’ or ‘world crops’ that can be grown here that farmers are just not offering,” Singh says.

The numbers of newcomers in Peel have grown faster than any other region in Canada. In 2016, immigrants represented more than half of the Region’s population. Being able to provide these communities with the foods they desire is a gap Singh strives to fill. 

Currently the region is experiencing a food insecurity crisis. The Mississauga Food Bank recorded a 14 percent increase in visits to its nine locations across the city in 2021, and there was a 58 percent increase in the amount of food distributed. 

Rising food costs are one factor for the increase in visits to food banks. According to the Statistics Canada Consumer Price Index for May, consumers paid 9.7 percent more for food over the past year. 

With less local production the cost of shipping food from farther away drives up prices, especially when gas hovers around two dollars a litre, which has never been seen before. With more local farms paved over, the farther food will have to travel, driving up the cost even higher. This vicious cycle leaves a greater number of people without access to sustainable food sources.

Singh is getting worried as new developments sprout up in place of crops and more farms around hers sell. 

She anticipates having to find new land to farm. 

For now, when she finishes working the soil around mid-day, Singh will search out a market in the afternoon to sell her produce.

The demand for her food continues to grow. The land to create it doesn’t.

This item reprinted with permission from The Pointer, Mississauga, Ontario