Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Milton Community Gardens

Local environmental group Milton Green recently sponsored a walking garden tour which included a close-up look at the Milton Community Gardens.

Currently located on the Allendale property across the street from the Milton Mall, this unassuming urban farm has been quietly producing tomatoes, beans and carrots for over fifteen years. And yet, most people in town don't even know it's there.

It's just as well that the Town hasn't gone out of its way to promote the garden or inform residents about its existence. Organizer Noelle Walsh has a long list of people waiting for one of the garden's 34 plots to become available, with many new residents and even a few out of towners wanting to get their hands dirty.

This is not to say that the Town and the Region aren't supportive. They prepare the plots, lease the land and insure it free of charge. Water tanks are filled throughout the season, and gardeners are provided with all the free mulch they can use. But the demand grows every year, so Walsh would like to see individual neighbourhoods start their own community gardens.

Happily, Walsh may get her wish. Chris Hadfield Public School recently received approval from the Town of Milton to start their own community garden in parkland adjacent to the school near Woodward and Dixon.

Starting next spring, students at the school will learn about gardening, food and agriculture by planting and tending to their own seedlings. Town staff will till the soil and provide water, and neighbourhood residents will tend the garden through the summer until the fruits and vegetables are ready to be harvested by the kids in the fall.

No word yet on whether other area schools plan to implement similar programs, but with any luck, community gardening in Milton will prove to be a growing trend.


Monday, July 11, 2011

One Farm

(originally posted at

Local food is all the rage these days. Proponents usually focus on fruits and vegetables, encouraging consumers to stock up on seasonal produce at farmers' markets and grocery stores. But buying local meat and dairy products is just as important - perhaps even more so. After all, what better way to ensure that the animals that feed you are being treated humanely than to get to know the farmer who raises them?

That's why one of my favourite vendors at the Farmers' Market is Dave McCann at 'The Beef Bloc'. I found out a bit of the story behind the beef a couple of years ago when I interviewed Dave for this blog and have been a loyal customer ever since. His beef isn't 'organic' or anything fancy like that, but he grows his own feed, does his own butchering, and raises his cattle free-range, with no antibiotics except when the animals are actually sick.

As someone who knows a little too much about conventional factory farming practices, I found it all very reassuring.

If you've ever driven through the village of Omagh on Britannia Road, you've probably seen Dave's cows. His family has owned the parcel just north and west of the village for over a century, and until recently it looked like this pastoral oasis would be spared the ravages of Milton's urban sprawl. Unlike their neighbours, the McCann's have not sold their land to developers, and although the new Boyne Survey development plan covers that whole area, their little patch will remain a farm - at least as long as the McCann family owns it.

But now there is a new threat.

Halton Region is moving forward with plans to widen Britannia Road to four lanes across the entire width of the region. The bottleneck through Omagh presents a problem, however, so consultants have devised three different options.

The first would simply widen the road along its existing path, essentially destroying the entire village. The second and third options would divert the road around the village, much in the same way that Regional Road 25 was diverted around Palermo.

The problem for the McCann's is the second option, which would divert Britannia Road north of Omagh... straight through the middle of their farm and all of their farm buildings.

The obvious solution is the third option, which would divert the road south through open fields. It's so obvious that one would assume that Regional Council would automatically reject the other two, and from the comments I've read on Hawthorne Villager it sounds like that is what will be happening. However, the fact that the other two options are even being considered is troubling, and illustrates the sorts of obstacles being faced by local farmers like the McCanns.

There was a presentation to Regional Council a few months back about the state of farming in Halton. One disturbing statistic: fully half of Halton's little remaining farmland is actually owned by developers and speculators who rent it out to short-term operations for quick cash crops like corn and soy. That way they can reap the agricultural tax benefits while they sit and wait for municipal development plans to reach the property.

The result is that serious, long-term farming operations like the McCann's are increasingly rare. And despite the lip service paid to sustainable agriculture and local food, all levels of government seem determined to drive them out of business.

The pressures faced by family farmers in the GTA range from major economic roadblocks to seemingly endless minor irritants. For example, Dave McCann was suddenly informed a couple of years ago that he would need to purchase a food vendor license for the farmers' market, despite the fact that Milton's business license by-law includes a specific exemption "if the goods, wares or merchandise are grown or produced by a farmer resident in Ontario who offers for sale or sells only the produce of his or her own farm."

The license itself is relatively cheap, and after arguing his case for months he just ended up paying the fee. But the fact that even that minor roadblock should be thrown up in the way of one of our few remaining local food producers is upsetting. And now the family is being forced to attend public meetings to explain why driving a four lane road through the middle of their farm might be problematic.

It makes you wonder if some people might be happier if farmers like the McCanns would just go away.

My 'Outdoor Adventure' to the New Main Library

(originally posted at

Mark June 16th on your calendars, folks! We are finally going to be hearing back from the consultants hired by the Town about future uses for the (now former) library buildings at Bruce Street. It's being billed as a 'public information session', which is Town-speak for "the decisions have already been made", and given that the new library is already open and the old one closed, I'm guessing that decision won't involve maintaining a branch library at Bruce Street.

In the end there simply weren't enough of us who will be hurt by this to override the wishes of the majority. But more on that later.

Apparently June is 'Walking Month' (who knew?), so in order to promote more physical activity - and, perhaps, to counteract the criticisms that the new library is too far to get to easily from downtown - the Library has been encouraging people to walk, bike, or take transit to 'Main@Main':

"Make each visit to the Main Library an outdoor adventure. Take a hike or ride your bike. Take to the trails or take transit. Take time to play at a park. Walk, stroll or saunter!"

Since I've been one of the ones doing the criticizing, and since it was such a lovely day yesterday, I figured I'd take them up on it. I wasn't going to walk, of course - that's about a half hour each way from my house, and I'm simply not that energetic. So I decided to take my bike.

On the way, I stopped by the old library (which is only about a ten minute walk from my house, BTW). I took a peek in the windows and was rather shocked by what I saw. You see, when the arguments were being made about just how prohibitively expensive it would be to maintain a branch library there, one of the biggest expenses was supposed to be replacing all the shelving and furniture that was going to be moved to the new site. Hundreds of thousands it would cost. Really.

So imagine my surprise when I saw this...

As far as I can tell, not a stick of furniture has been removed. Not a shelf, not a table, not a chair. Hell, even the computers are still there!

Actually, I'm not surprised at all. From the very beginning I had questioned why the Library would want all that tacky old shelving in their shiny new facility. And now we know.

I continued on my merry way, perhaps unwisely choosing to take the Main Street route to my destination. It's not a pleasant route, especially with all the construction that is only going to get worse as they move forward with the rail underpass. In fact I took Child's Drive home, which is really the best way to go if you're coming from the south-west. But I wanted you to see that section of Main Street from ground level so you'd have some idea of what sort of "outdoor adventure" they're asking the seniors in those Millside apartment buildings to go through as they make their way to the new library.

The Main Street underpass is slated to take three years to complete

In the winter this is usually blocked with snow.
And watch your bike tires don't get stuck in the rails!

This is how most kids coming from schools south of the tracks get to Main Street

I take it this is NOT one of the 'trails' they're talking about

Things improve east of the GO station

I am assured that the bike racks are on their way

You will note that I was riding my bike on the sidewalk and not on the street, which is generally a no-no. In fact, I saw six or seven cyclists of all ages on this section of Main and not one of them was on the street - and for very good reason. Between the heavy traffic, the narrow lanes, and the sinkholes that tend to form around manhole covers there, you'd have to be suicidal to try it. And that's speaking as someone who used to commute along King Street in downtown Toronto on my bike every day.

I must say, when I finally got inside the new library I was very impressed. It's beautiful - big, well stocked, lots of cool features like a silent study area and a room where some kids were playing Kinect. My main complaint is that my favourite section - the local history and microfilm area - seems to have actually shrunk (just for the record, I'd be happy to help them develop a proper genealogy section for a reasonable fee).

I also found the place a little... well, bland. But I'm sure it will warm up once they've been in there a few months.

Let me be clear: I've always been in favour of having a new library and arts centre. I think it's a lousy location, but I never disputed the need for a larger, more modern main library. And count me among those who love the design of the new building.

What upsets me - and what upsets a lot of people, especially in Ward 2 - is that our concerns were never taken seriously. If they had been, this 'feasibility study' would have been done as soon as the project was approved - not six months before the buildings were to be vacated. In fact, the effects of removing the library from downtown Milton on the social and economic fabric of our central core and the town as a whole would have been examined and analyzed many years ago, as soon as the idea was first conceived.

Instead, we were thrown a bone. We're lucky it was an election year - otherwise they wouldn't have even bothered with that. But at least now our Ward 2 councillors will be able to make their token 'Nay' votes and tell us with pride that hey, they fought the good fight. Just don't ask them why they approved the bloody thing in the first place.

Having spent spent much of the past six months in seemingly endless debate with both councillors and residents who are unwilling to see the Town spend money to keep a branch library at Bruce Street, I can honestly say that, while I continue to disagree with them, I have a much better understanding of their perspective. You see, from their standpoint the new library is a net gain for the town as a whole. While some people will have reduced access, even more will have their access increased, so obviously it's a win. And from a purely linear point of view, ignoring all the physical and psychological barriers between here and there, it really isn't that far at all.

If that was all there was to it, their perspective would make perfect sense. If Milton was a single, homogenous entity with one part exactly like every other part, then it really wouldn't matter where we put facilities like libraries as long as they were evenly distributed. If 'downtown' was simply wherever the planners or the mall developers decided it was, then we could just call Main and Thompson 'downtown' and turn the old one into a tourist attraction.

Unfortunately, real live towns just don't work that way. And that's what I can't seem to get them to understand.