Forget Paving Paradise, Let's Just Dig a Giant Hole in It
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Forget Paving Paradise, Let’s Just Dig a Giant Hole in It

Farmers in Melanchton, Ontario, begin a long fight against a giant limestone quarry—the largest proposed for North America.


The farmland of Dufferin County looks exactly the way you’d imagine: softly rolling hillsides, the landscape dotted with old clapboard barns and quaint country houses, wooden fences neatly marking off the lots. Nestled in this terrain, about an hour and half northwest of Toronto, is the township of Melancthon (population 2,895), a small community that has been an agricultural centre for many generations’ worth of farmers. The soil in this region—Honeywood silt loam—is said by local farmers to be unique in southern Ontario, and is, particularly, ideally well-suited for growing potatoes.

This soil, which both holds water very well and drains very well, happens to sit on top of another valuable commodity—limestone. Under the farmland of Melancthon is a rich deposit of Amabel dolomitic limestone, which is prized for its strength and durability. Limestone is what’s called an aggregate resource; according to Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), aggregate resources “include any combination of sand, gravel, or crushed stone in a natural or processed state. Aggregates are used in the construction of highways, dams, and airports, as well as residential, industrial, and institutional buildings.” The limestone in Melancthon is, by all accounts, both plentiful and of excellent quality, and would be in high demand if brought to market.

Since 2006 a corporate entity called The Highland Companies, which describes itself as “the operating and investment vehicle for a group of private investors based in Canada and the United States,” has been buying up parcels of land in Melancthon, purchasing it from local farmers and putting together a consolidated potato farming operation. The company’s intentions, however, are more complicated. Sometime in the next few months The Highland Companies will be filing an application to open a 2,400-acre limestone quarry, hoping to turn a significant portion of its farmland (it owns approximately 7,500 acres in Melancthon) over to aggregate extraction.

Carl Cosack ambles over to greet us as we pull up to his cattle ranch. A sturdy, genial, no-nonsense cowboy, Cosack, along with many other local residents, is deeply opposed to the proposed quarry. Worried residents have come together to form the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce (NDACT) to try to combat Highland’s plans. The concerns are many, ranging from the process by which Highland is pursuing its goals (there have been accusations of bullying local farmers and overwhelming a small, unsophisticated township council), to the destruction of prime agricultural land, to permanent damage to the local water supply—which will significantly affect not just Highland-owned properties but the entire area surrounding the quarry site. Over coffee, Cosack spends an hour detailing Highland’s increasing presence in Melancthon. As our conversation winds down, we ask Cosack what effects the proposed quarry might have on his community:

[In] these small municipalities, we know every kid in town, and you build these communities that have local jobs and local residents there, to support your volunteer fire department, to support your arena, to take the kids to hockey… This sort of stuff that has generally defined us—people living in an area, sharing reasonable values, knowing how to get along, meeting at church, when you go to the coffee shop in Shelburne and four different people say “Hey, how are you doing? How are your horses?”… People know you, and you know people. This is what defines community—that when you go to commencement night and sixty kids graduate there are three hundred adults there. Where did they all come from? Because they care. Half of them don’t have their own kids in the graduating class, but they watched them grow, they watched them play hockey with their own sons, and then they go to commencement night to cheer them on. That’s community. And that will be no longer.

Carl Cosack.

Highland first began buying up land in Melancthon in 2006. According to locals, the company was interested in building a sophisticated, larger-scale agricultural operation, and approached landowners under the guise of pursuing that goal. Rick Wallace, another farmer in the area, produces four to five million pounds of potatoes a year; he does it on two hundred acres. His family’s owned the farm since 1917 and has been supplying the Campbell Soup Company (among others) since 1965. A few years ago Wallace met with John Lowndes, who heads up The Highland Companies (and grew up not too far from Melancthon, in the Orangeville area), about selling a portion of his family’s property. During their conversation Wallace asked Lowndes what would happen to his land if he sold to Highland. “Oh well, not too much really,” he recalls Lowndes saying. Wallace, who decided not to sell at that time, was left with the clear impression that Highland was pursuing farming opportunities: “[Lowndes] was going to be a world-class potato grower.” The topic of aggregates, he says, didn’t come up.
As Highland bought up more property, residents began noticing troubling signs that the company had interests besides potato farming. It tore up trees that protected the soil from erosion, dug wells at the edges of fields where they wouldn’t be helpful for irrigation, and began negotiations to purchase a rail spur that was ideally suited for bringing large volumes of material to market. A consensus emerged that Highland was laying the groundwork for a quarry. Many were shocked. Says Cosack: “Out here it’s sort of different—when you lie it’s really hard to make up. We still do a lot of business on a handshake; however, if you screw it up once you will never in your lifetime do another business [deal] on a handshake… The Highland Companies and their associates have just plain made the mistake, as far as we’re concerned, of not having been truthful in the beginning, and by not being truthful everything they say now is deemed to be a lie until proven differently.”
Highland’s spokesperson, Michael Daniher, maintains that Highland’s actions were all congruent with the company’s desire to built a unified, efficient potato farm and to pursue diverse business interests besides agriculture. (The company lists four areas of operations on its website: farming, aggregates, rail, and wind energy.) All these actions were undertaken lawfully, he told us, and were fully within Highland’s rights as property owner. Moreover, says Daniher, Highland is committed to “a corporate vision for the area that is trying to contribute towards a sustainable future in a responsible way that is based—as the [township’s] draft Official Plan has envisioned—on the area’s natural resources, and to achieve that balance between meeting the needs of a society that has indicated it needs more aggregate but to do so in a responsible way that contributes towards a sustainable future for the region.” Daniher also rejects the claim that Highland hid its intention to explore the possibility of building a quarry operation in addition to its other activities. “No question: when John [Lowndes] and the group were talking with potential vendors about…acquiring their property, [they] mentioned to a number of them that other land uses would be looked at over time… If people wanted to talk about aggregate, John was happy to talk about aggregate with them, so he was open during that process.”

Rick Wallace with some of this year’s potato harvest.

Asked about local residents’ opposition to Highland, its quarry proposal, and its tactics, Daniher hits back hard:

[I]t is easy to make sensational and unsupported allegations. Our view has been that those allegations should be passed through the prism of credibility… We’re well aware that any proposed change in the community raises concerns… For some it may be as simple as that. Others would have their own agenda. A number of our critics, frankly, were in discussion to sell their land to the company but transactions were not concluded because, frankly, they wanted more money than had been paid in other transactions.

In 2008 Highland officially announced its intention to build a quarry. The company is currently working out the proposal’s details, including a plan for rehabilitating the soil for agricultural purposes once the limestone has been extracted, and a plan for maintaining the health of the groundwater supply. An official application for a quarry license will be filed as soon as this technical documentation is complete. In July of this year Highland held an open house, presenting some preliminary information about the quarry and affording residents the opportunity to ask questions about it. It went, according to members of NDACT, very badly: “They treated us really all like juveniles,” says Cosack.
A key aspect of Highland’s positioning of the quarry is that it will help build “a sustainable township.” To some, the implication is that Melancthon wouldn’t be sustainable without the quarry. This local residents vehemently dispute. We asked Wallace what kind of shape the community is in and whether it—despite some residents’ protestations—might really be in dire straits. “That was Lowndes’s spin,” he told us with a hint of anger. “I think we were all doing well here before. None of the people who sold [their land] wanted for much.” Cosack entirely agrees: “Since the Irish came after the Irish Potato Famine, people have lived here and built communities. So for [Highland] all of a sudden to decide that this is not good enough for those people that are here is pretty arrogant. Nobody invited them.”
One of the major areas of dispute between Highland and NDACT is the viability of Highland’s plans to restore the land, once it has completed the limestone extraction, back to agricultural use. Highland has outlined what it is calling a “progressive rehabilitation” plan: the company will actually be extracting limestone from three hundred acres of the total 2,400 at a time, and will rehabilitate each section as it goes. The claim is that this will be “rehabilitation to agriculture”—that the land will once again, after extraction, become productive.
Many locals just aren’t buying it. Neither is the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, which recently stated that “once aggregate extraction begins, the farmers who farm them (special soils) will be permanently lost. Moreover, the special soils, and their unique qualities, will be permanently lost.” When we broached this issue with Daniher he was adamant in reiterating Highland’s commitment to rehabilitation and said that rehabilitation had been successfully accomplished elsewhere (though he did not, when asked, provide specific examples). Daniher would not, however, commit to restoring the land such that it would be viable specifically for potato-farming: “The final enunciation of crops that could be grown has not been discussed in great detail simply because…that process has been ongoing… I’m not going to speculate on what the final outcome of the research process is going to be.” He also denied that the land in Melancthon is, in fact, as special as has been claimed. “The reality is that neither potatoes nor that kind of soil are unique to that area of the province—they exist elsewhere.”

NDACT’s map demonstrating the size of the proposed quarry relative to the size of downtown Toronto.

But of all the many issues Highland’s prospective quarry raises, perhaps the most troubling is the state of the local water supply. If built, the quarry will be two hundred feet deep, well below the water table in this area. When an open-pit quarry is dug it needs to be dewatered: that is, any water that flows into the pit must be pumped out before the aggregate can be extracted. Dig below the water table and the quantity of water that needs to be pumped out will, obviously, be sizable. Local farmers are therefore worried that the quarry would permanently deplete the water table, that their wells may run dry, and that the land surrounding the quarry will be severely damaged. Because one of the key features of Honeywood silt loam is its ability to hold water, farmers in part are so successful there because they don’t need to irrigate intensively. The water level, in short, is essential to the well-being of the agricultural activity there. At the open house in the summer Highland outlined a plan to maintain the water supply; it did so by comparing the quarry to a basement that must be kept dry. The presentation board on this subject stated that, just like in a homeowner’s basement, a combination of walls and sump-pumps would manage the water in the area. Many residents found the analogy almost preposterously implausible.
The potato farms of Melancthon are atypical, not just because they are located on a particular kind of soil but because vegetable farming as a whole is relatively uncommon in Ontario. One farmer we met with, who asked us not to use his name out of concern for retribution by Highland, told us that “.0006% of the landmass in Ontario is vegetable land.” Why, he went on to argue, would you put a quarry in that land when there is a great deal of limestone elsewhere? (Implicitly, this is a rebuttal of Daniher’s claim that the land here isn’t unique. Whether or not it is, this line of thought goes, the land is still rare and special enough to be worth preserving intact.) Asked about Highland’s stated aim of rehabilitating the land, the farmer said, with a wry smile: “That’s hilarious… We’re sitting on the top of this area that is well drained. Potato is a root crop… that can’t be sitting in water or it’ll rot. So the best part about this soil is that water flows through it, and it has a two-hundred-foot filtration layer. If you take that away…it’s ridiculous.”
Highland is able to make its bid for building a quarry in prime agricultural land because of Ontario’s planning priorities, which privilege aggregate extraction over other land uses. Though the MNR administers the licensing of quarries in Ontario through the Aggregate Resources Act, it is the province’s Planning Act that sets out land use priorities and therefore determines the decision-making principles according to which the MNR will grant or deny quarry applications. Section 2.5 of the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), a subsection of the Planning Act, prioritizes aggregate extraction, stating that “Demonstration of need for mineral aggregate resources, including any type of supply/demand analysis, shall not be required, notwithstanding the availability, designation or licensing for extraction of mineral aggregate resources locally or elsewhere.” That is to say, prospective operators don’t need to make a case for building a quarry—they don’t need to demonstrate, for example, that aggregate extraction is of greater value to the province or the local community than agriculture. The default assumption is that aggregate is valuable and that it may be extracted unless a reason can be shown not to do so.
And that will be one of the main things concerned Melancthon residents will have to do: demonstrate that the quarry poses a fundamental risk to the agricultural viability of the entire area or at least show that Highland’s plans for managing the water table are unsatisfactory. The Township Council does not possess the funds to commission an independent environmental assessment and has not—at least thus far—put pressure on Highland to do so. (Companies are often required to pay for environmental assessments in the course of seeking permission to conduct development.) NDACT has been working with an environmental engineer in trying to build its case against the quarry, but given Highland’s resources (one of the company’s primary stakeholders is the Boston-based Baupost Group, which according to some reports is valued at fourteen billion dollars) none of the NDACT members we spoke with believed such small-scale efforts will be enough.
Highland spokesperson Daniher showed a great deal more confidence in the application process, telling us that “In terms of [the quarry’s] impact beyond our property line, the reality is that no license will be granted unless it can be shown during the full and thorough and open review process that those issues and any concerns will be addressed.” Moreover, Daniher points out, Highland has every intention of continuing its potato farming operation on the remainder of its land, and thus it would not be in Highland’s own interest to damage the water supply. (The strict financial question of interest, of course, depends on how much Highland would earn for extracting limestone relative to how much it earns for farming potatoes. Daniher told us that he did not know the value per acre of Highland’s land in each of these scenarios.)
As for the matter of rehabilitation, it may not end up mattering whether the plans for doing so are viable—Highland may not ever have to seriously attempt it. Section 2.5.4 of the PPS, which deals with aggregate extraction in prime agricultural land, stipulates that “complete agricultural rehabilitation is not required if: (a) there is a substantial quantity of mineral aggregate resources below the water table warranting extraction, or the depth of planned extraction in a quarry makes restoration of pre-extraction agricultural capability unfeasible; (b) other alternatives have been considered by the applicant and found unsuitable.” Simply put: if you dig a hole deep enough to make rehabilitation of the land unfeasible, you are freed of the obligation to rehabilitate it.
In his 2008-2009 annual report, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Gord Miller called for a greater sensitivity to environmental concerns in Ontario’s land use planning. He also commented that “Municipalities have little practical authority to restrict the approval of new pits and quarries under the existing land use planning system. They also are often reluctant to restrict new operations because of the costly possibility of facing an Ontario Municipal Board hearing. This skewed process often results in frustrated local residents feeling disenfranchised by both their local politicians and the provincial government.” A better summary of the sentiments expressed by every one of the Melancthon farmers we spoke with could not be imagined.

Ralph Armstrong.

One of the last farmers we met, described by several townspeople as the moral centre of the community, is Ralph Armstrong. A fifth-generation farmer, he refused to sell his property to Highland when he was approached in the winter of 2007. As Armstrong describes it, Highland’s representative simply showed up on his doorstep one day. “A knock came at the door, and this guy came in and he walked right in and over to the table and he said, ‘Here, I’m here to buy your farm,’ and he put the offer down. The whole thing signed right up…our lawyer’s name already on it and everything. He said. ‘Just sign right here,’ and he laid a big cheque out on the table.” And that, he said, more or less captures the company’s approach throughout this process.
After we’d finished speaking with Armstrong, coats on and nearly out the door, he stopped and asked us to turn the recorder back on so he could say one last thing. “This isn’t to do with Mary Lynne [Armstrong’s wife] and I, with people our age. This is to do with people your age, and what kind of shape we’re leaving the Earth in. If we have clean air to breathe, and pure water to drink, and secure, top-quality soil to grow your food in—that’s three pretty important things. We need the Earth pretty badly, but the Earth doesn’t really need people. We’d better get our priorities straight.”
The Highland Companies and Melancthon residents are at the beginning of what everyone anticipates will be a very long and drawn-out process. Should the Township Council reject Highland’s application, the company can—and almost certainly will—appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board, a body that is widely described as having a strongly pro-development bent. As Highland prepares to submit its application, what the local residents we met are most hoping for is a public discussion about our planning priorities, a discussion that isn’t just motivated by market considerations but also pays heed to Ontario’s farming heritage, the desires of local communities, and the importance of a sustainable agricultural system. As a province, we owe them, and ourselves, nothing less.

Editor’s note: Since we first published this story, the Highland Companies filed their paperwork seeking permission from the province to open the quarry. The Ontario government responded by required a full environmental assessment of the proposal. Farmers in Melancthon and food activists across southern Ontario continued working to continue raising awareness of the quarry proposal, and held several major events drawing attention to their cause.

On November 21, 2012, citing a lack of public support, Highland Companies announced they were withdrawing their application to dig the quarry.