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.

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