'It's a ridiculous waste — putting up houses on prime agricultural land so that people can live in the country and then commute back into the city’. So says Ron Steele, head of the South Niagara Federation of Agriculture and an activist in the fight to preserve what is Canada’s most productive agricultural region.
Only half a per cent of Canada’s vast land mass is considered suitable for growing tender fruit and most of that is in the Niagara peninsula south of Lake Ontario. But in recent years more than one third of this unique agricultural resource has fallen victim to the urban sprawl from Niagara’s cities and towns.
The group leading the fight to protect Niagara farmland call themselves the Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. (PALS). Gracia Janes, whose St Catherines kitchen serves as the society’s office, says that the society has been able to save some 7000 acres of prime fruitland and defend their region against what Gracia Janes calls ‘a tunnel vision view of what growth and progress are about’.
One of PALS’ most powerful arguments has been the uniqueness of Niagara fruitbelt— a strip of land between Lake Ontario and the Niagara escarpment It is a ridge that rises two or three hundred feet above lake level and provides protection in Canada’s cold winter months for the tender fruit crops on its slopes.
The society has employed many different tactics. In 1976 they planted a symbolic fruit tree in the path of a controversial expressway. This was followed by a funeral service for the tree to symbolize what they saw as the threatened death of Canada’s best fruitland.
The group stays clear of identification with any political party or ideology. Niagara is a small ‘c’ conservative area and they have been able to tap this sentiment to defend the region’s traditional way of life. Its efforts have also been supported by the reform elements in the community like local New Democratic member of the legislature Mel Swart.
‘We often just end up trying to enforce what is already stated government policy in the official plan’, says Gracia Janes. They had to hire their own lawyer, for example, to resist the claims of Niagara’s muncipalities for substantial alterations in the Official Plan. PALS legal costs as a result have been high and the group has had to be inventive in its fundraising tactics; since 1978 they have raised $100,000. Every spring they hold a ‘walk through the blossoms’ of the fruit trees.
PALS feels that their major victory, in addition to the seven thousand acres saved, is the designation of current tender fruit growing areas as ‘permanent’. This Municipal Board ruling will be a valuable tool in the struggle of PALS and its allies. However the group feels that it must remain ever vigilant in order to maintain this hard won advantage that may have reversed the trend of taking fruit belt land out of production. Indeed a new battle is already looming on the horizon. The Ministry of Natural Resources has identified some 6000 acres of tender fruit land as ‘a significant source’ of sand and gravel.
PALS has gained prestige and respectibility in the Niagara region and is an effective alliance of city and country people. Three of the eight executive members are farmers.
When the group first started some farm people felt it challenged their right to do whatever they wanted with their land. But Ron Steele believes that most farmers have come to see the necessity of protecting a unique agricultural resource. ‘We are only here for a few short moments in time and then somebody else takes over.., so far no one’s come out with a better way of getting food than growing it in the soil, and someone’s got to do that’. This concept of property is less one of absolute right and more one of stewardship of the land.
The battle to save the Niagara fruitbelt has helped fuel similar struggles. PALS members have helped form a province wide organisation — the Ontario Foodlands Coalition, which has fought a number of battles to preserve farmland faced with the construction of airports, highways and urban and industrial development As Ron Steele says, the time is passing when the dollar alone can decide where development should take place.