Foodstock: Canadian Foodies and Chefs Fight Mega Quarry in Ontario

The growing locavore movement could be hurt by a project that threatens to turn 2,300 acres of prime agricultural land into an industrial site


The people kept coming. Despite rain and a bitter wind, tens of thousands of people gathered on a farm near Shelburne, Ontario, earlier this month to protest the transformation of 2,300 acres of prime agricultural land, by an American-backed company, into one of the continent's largest limestone quarries. About 100 chefs from across Canada, including some of the country's most famous, threw the biggest party the local food movement has seen here -- they called it Foodstock -- in the hope that they could save farmland and the groundwater below.

The chefs served up dishes such as Jerusalem artichoke soup, heritage pork with kimchee on a bun, and elk lentil dal, all made from food donated by farmers, to a crowd of 28,000, according to the organizers. The guests walked from food station to food station in a wood at the edge of a field and listened to popular Canadian musicians such as Sarah Harmer and Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy. Elderly farmers dined alongside city slickers and suburban families. All around there were hand-drawn signs pleading those in charge to save the land.

The proposed quarry is the most significant challenge yet faced by the Canadian local food movement. Over the last ten years, locavore momentum has been growing in the country, with more and more people getting involved, from chefs to farmers to policymakers to educators to regular folk. But this social movement has been better known for its farmers' markets and snout-to-tail dining, than for political action. Now, the fight to stop plans to dig up good farmland and disturb watersheds will test the mettle of the movement and the outcome will set the tone for the protection of agricultural land here in Canada.

"If they succeed, it will push legislation, it will push policy," said Lauren Baker, the coordinator of the Toronto Food Policy Council whose goals includes fostering regional food self-reliance. "But if this quarry goes ahead, I think the message will be that profit and development trump what a community wants, that profit and development trump farmland and the environment."

For the last few decades, the area in Melancthon County that is now the subject of controversy was made up of family farms. It's potato land, and good for Brussels sprouts too. "This is some of the most productive and valuable farmland in the world," said Brent Preston, a local organic farmer who sits on the Clearview council, in the township next door. "There are almost no rocks in it at all and it's a beautiful light, sandy loam. It's the primo primo stuff."

But under that soil is limestone aggregate, as well as high-quality dolostone, that is in demand for road building and construction in Toronto and beyond. Several years ago, an investment group called the Highland Companies, backed by a Boston-based hedge fund, began buying the farmland in question, and they have been growing potatoes on the thousands of acres they own ever since. Then, last spring, it was revealed that the company wanted to extract this aggregate and ship it to the city. Over a period of decades, the plan would be to excavate approximately 2,000 acres of land, working on about 300 acres at one time, said Lindsay Broadhead, spokesperson for the Highland Companies. "The life of the quarry is upwards of 100 years," she said. "You can't just dynamite the whole land. In Ontario, extraction is met by market demand."

In order to access the stone located at a depth that is below the water table, the company's plans include what they call a quarry de-watering scheme that will continuously pump out water from an aquifer. "It works like a sump pump system," she explained. "It's the same as you'd use in a basement on a large scale." In the company's original dig application documents, they said that 600 million liters would be pumped every day. Broadhead, though, says they now believe this number will be lower. And after an area has been excavated, she explained, they plan to rehabilitate the quarry and return it to agriculture.

Despite the company's attempts to assuage people's fears about the environmental impact of the project, the response of those who live nearby has been outrage. "This is one of those rare local issues about which there is no disagreement. I have not heard a single person say anything in favor of this," said Preston, the organic farmer. "There is nobody here who thinks there is any kind of silver lining."

Concern about the quarry has come from further away too: The farmland in question is located near the Mulmur Hills, a picturesque area where many of Toronto's well-heeled have weekend homes. The groundwater that would be pumped out of the quarry feeds into some rivers that supply drinking water to cities downstream. There has been a strong opposition from the First Nations' communities. And people who have no connection to the area are also angered by the proposal. According to Baker of the Toronto Food Policy Council, there is a growing concern in the general public about the loss of agricultural land to urban sprawl. The removal of aggregate from a farming area to supply the construction industry that builds this growing sprawl is even worse.

Which is why the chefs stepped in. They know possibly more than anyone the importance of good farmland -- their trade depends on the quality, and therefore freshness, of the ingredients they can purchase. "Chefs know what's at stake," said Michael Stadtländer, president of the Canadian Chefs' Congress and the person who originally came up with the idea for Foodstock. Stadtländer is one of Canada's best-known chefs, and his world-famous Eigensinn Farm is only 20 kilometers away from the proposed quarry site. His colleagues' enthusiastic answer to his rallying call and the public's response to the event they planned demonstrates, for him, the role they can play. "It really shows how important chefs can be and what a force they are."

Though what will happen next is not known.

This summer, the province ordered the proposed quarry to undergo an environmental assessment, a process not usually required for quarries in Ontario. According to Broadhead, the company is currently in discussion with the province about what kind of public consultation they will need to do as part of this process. And other institutions and government will have their say too. The local conservation authority will assess the potential impact of the project on the watershed, and, for the quarry to move forward, the township would have to rezone the property from agriculture to resource extraction. The provincial Ministry of the Environment would have to award an aggregate license as well.

Whether one day there will be a quarry in Melancthon is an open question. Baker, for one, wonders whether it's politically feasible for the government to allow the quarry to move forward. "For every one person who showed up, 10 didn't," she said, referring to Foodstock. Then, drawing connections to other grassroots social movements that are protesting the status quo, such as the Occupy Movement, she said: "It is an interesting time for this to happen when business as usual is being questioned. People are saying enough."

Image: Foodstock.