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culture

Making Soup for a Cause

Opponents of the mega-quarry in Melancthon Township bring their cause to Toronto, via broth and ladles.

Dave Vander Zaag shows his soil.

“It’s just like butter.”

To appreciate one reason why residents in Melancthon Township continue to fight a proposed mega-quarry that could occupy up to 15,000 acres of prime agricultural land, pick up a handful of soil from Dave Vander Zaag’s farm. It’s soft, fluffy, and virtually rock free. The delicate texture drains well, like sand, and holds nutrients as firmly as clay. It’s the sort of soil that makes farmers from elsewhere drool—as Vander Zaag puts it, you have to farm on lousy land before you can appreciate just how unique this Honeywood silt loam is.

For several years a Boston-based hedge fund, under the guise of potato producer Highland Companies, has bought properties in the rural township 90 minutes northwest of Toronto. If it gets its way after a provincially-imposed environmental assessment, this soil will be shovelled out of the ground to make way for a massive limestone quarry pit. While the project sits in limbo, its opponents are banding together for the second year in a row for an awareness-raising culinary event.

Building on the 28,000 people who drove to Vander Zaag’s farm last year for Foodstock (the organizers of which were one of our heroes of 2011), over 130 chefs from across the province, and a handful from elsewhere, will dig out their ladles for Soupstock, which will be held on October 21 at Woodbine Park.

Tomato soup with trout prepared by Michael Stadtländer.

For a preview of Soupstock—co-organized by the Canadian Chefs’ Congress and the David Suzuki Foundation—we went out to Melancthon to talk to organizers and some of the farmers providing ingredients for the event. Our discussions began over lunch at Vander Zaag’s farm in a school bus converted by chef/farmer Michael Stadtländer into a fully functional kitchen and dining room. After serving up a meal including ingredients grown on his Eigensinn Farm, Stadtländer observed that it would be “insane” to mess with the local landscape, especially one that provided both the headwaters of several rivers and a rich source of food so close to the GTA. To make a point to the quarry backers, he noted that he was trying to bring in some chefs from Boston to demonstrate the extent of the culinary community’s support for the farmers.

Representatives from the David Suzuki Foundation discussed the likely long-term scarring of the landscape, despite assertions from the quarry’s backers that they will leave the land in good shape when mining is exhausted a century from now. Chief among their concerns is the effects on the groundwater supply, which could be drained away by the giant pit, effectively ending farming for those who continue to hold onto their properties. Dr. Faisal Moola, director general of the foundation for Ontario and Northern Canada, also stressed that Ontario needs to adopt a “3 Rs” approach to its limestone aggregate use (reduce, reuse, recycle) as Europeans do in building and maintaining urban areas.

Over the next three weeks, we’ll profile some of the farmers involved with Soupstock and the fight against the quarry. First up: Dave Vander Zaag

Dave Vander Zaag
Farming Experience: 14 years on current farm. Grew up on farm near Alliston, where his father had grown crops since arriving from the Netherlands in 1949.
Crops: Potatoes, wheat, corn, barley, canola.

On the day we visited, Vander Zaag was harvesting potatoes, which he plants in rotation every two years. Up to 60 acres can be harvested each day by digging machines that move at the lightning speed of one-and-a-half miles per hour. While a few spuds in the field were green from being “sunburned,” the rest looked ready to grace any dining table. Once removed from the field, the potatoes moved through sorting machines before being placed in refrigerated barns, where some may stay in saleable condition until next summer. Most of the day’s pickings will become potato chips.

Companies that Vander Zaag grows for, like Frito-Lay and Loblaws, require him to sign forms to guarantee the sustainability of his crops, forms that make him laugh when he considers what may happen to the surrounding landscape if the quarry gets the green light. To Vander Zaag, better land planning is required to ensure farming remains sustainable, as only three per cent of Ontario’s land produces agriculture. “There are 99 acres somewhere else that are better suited for this than the 100 acre farms,” he observes. That Highland would want to destroy prime growing land that doesn’t require the expense of adding drainage pipes (as his family had to do in Alliston) and can supply rush requests for product from GTA supermarkets seems awful to Vander Zaag.

A Spudnik to pick up spuds.

Having been involved with his neighbours from almost the beginning of the fight against the quarry, Vander Zaag was happy to provide his property for Foodstock last year. He worries about the pit’s effects on the local water supply, which could be lost to those who stick it out as it flows toward the quarry. On farming in general, he notes that it’s “a challenge, but yet it’s a rewarding occupation.” His children are showing interest in carrying on the family trade, with his oldest son currently studying agriculture at the University of Guelph.

In the end, the battle comes back to the rich, buttery soil that Vander Zaag has nothing but praise for. “This is just the best of the best.”

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