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Farmers will need to protect their own land from development

Last week’s provincial election will be remembered as a vote for highway development… but not the kind that helps open up rural Ontario to the rest of the province.

Urban Ontario, particularly the 905 area, doesn’t like being stuck in gridlock. And it has a huge number of votes.

To woo that electorate, the Progressive Conservatives proposed a 59-kilometre, $6-billion highway that would cut across the northwest part of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), mainly serving Mississauga, Brampton and Milton.

I got lost in Milton Tuesday. The new housing there is unreal. I can only imagine the challenges faced by anyone west of Toronto trying to go north or east on a regular basis.

Doug Ford counted on that frustration driving votes. And he, or his advisors, were right.

Now the premier and his to-be-named agriculture, food and rural affairs minister will need to spin the highway as something good for farmers throughout the rest of the province.

I imagine they will say something like the highway it will more efficiently help get the food produced by “hard working regular folks in our beautiful rural areas” into the grocery carts of those in the highly populated 905.

After all, what else can they say?

The Greens, the Liberals and the New Democrats all opposed the highway, as did many environmental groups. Among them, they said it was in the wrong place, it was an idea from the 1950s before public transit was on people’s radar, and it was likely to put more vehicles on the road and increase pollution from exhaust.

Farm groups expressed some concern about farmland being lost because of the proposed highway. But they typically support the Progressive Conservatives. Even though farmland will be lost, they didn’t say much.

To its credit, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture said an agricultural assessment of the project should be conducted. That’s responsible. But the kind of passionate outcry that’s normally heard when farmland is threatened was lacking.

It’s difficult to believe that an agricultural assessment will change the Ford government’s plans. Nor will it evoke much response from farm groups. Environmental groups, yes, who put stock in the Greenbelt. But not farm groups. Politically, there’s too much at stake to oppose the biggest election promise of the party they support.

And when it comes to picking battles, this one is really a sad case. The motivation to push back is dampened by the fact that development is taking precedent to farmland preservation all over the GTA.

A farmer with the Peel Federation of Agriculture who lives outside the Greenbelt told Better Farming magazine that he and others there have been in a holding pattern for 14 years, as development policies ping-ponged back and forth.

They’ve been reluctant to make new investments in their farm because their future is uncertain. And as for their kids coming back to the farm… well, why would they, given the pro-development culture they’re facing?

I think farmers can count on the Ford government for investment. It’s been good at giving them resources for research, in particular.

But if it comes down to either protecting farmland or attracting votes by developing highways, the writing’s on the wall.

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