By Ted Nickerson
This is the first of three-part series on the deeper meaning of the fight over the development of Pickering airport.
The events of the last few weeks, (the City of Pickering motion to rescind support for an airport / the Region’s Draft Official Plan Statutory Public meeting) got me wondering about the conflict between the Pro- and Anti- Airport folks beyond the numbers.
The Anti-Airport/Pro-Farming groups definitely hold the cachet position claiming over 50 years of public opposition, and the Green and Class 1 farmland themes. While the Pro-Airport/Pro-Development groups have by far the strongest numbers (financial benefits, job creation) orders of magnitude better than the opposition.
Several topics came to mind, so I’ll start with a three separate posts, each with a different focus. Here is the first one deserving of a little philosophical thinking.
Question: As a pro-airport development person, how do you justify the loss of Class 1 farmland?
Simple, one word – “BALANCE”.
Sometime around 2010 or so, the Federal government realized that a future Pickering airport would be required but not on the scale of or to compete against Toronto Pearson, but rather to complement it. Though early studies looked at as many as six or seven runways, the reality is Pickering would be a three-runway airport.
Starting with MP Jim Flaherty, and carried forward by Prime Ministers Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, it was decided to release the surplus land (some 10,000 acres) and dedicate it to the formation of Rouge National Urban Park. This action significantly increased environmentally protected lands in the GTA while preserving for the long-term agriculture on those lands.
The Federal government of the day deserves recognition …they did a good thing, the right thing. Even as Pro-Airport/Pro-Development people, we support this action.
But life is multi-dimensional. There never is just one theme. The Feds recognized this and retained 9,600 acres of the original Federal lands for economic development including an airport. The GTA is one of the fastest growing areas in North America. It is the economic engine for at least Ontario, and maybe begrudgingly admitted by other jurisdictions, of importance to all of Canada.
Growth is coming to the Toronto region at a record pace. People, jobs, new homes, driven by greater immigration. You can’t stop it, nor should you try. Full development of the Federal lands will play an essential role in federal, provincial and regional growth plans.
Now, we hear the refrain from the anti-airport groups how terrible it will be to have aircraft flying over Rouge National Urban Park (RNUP). This ignores the fact that it was a federal decision to add the 10,000 acres to the park from the land reserved for the airport. It should be noted that much of the RNUP will still be farmed for decades to come.
In truth, they are not really ignoring the fact at all. They are playing the incrementalism long game. No matter how much is given to appease the “green idealism” of some, it will never be enough until they have it all and all growth stops. The result will be to push the responsibility for newcomers and the growth they bring onto other regions.
The Feds could have kept the 10,000 acres for development, but they didn’t. The Federal government chose to strike a balance between environmental protection, farming and economic growth. That was the right decision for Canada’s future.
How much pressure is on Class 1 farmland in Southern Ontario?
Statistics Canada has reported that farmland in Ontario is disappearing at the rate of 319 acres per day. That sounds serious except “farmland” is the wrong metric! “Cropland”, the actual productive acreage, is the true metric.
In 2016, a study by the Fraser Institute identified that there was more cropland under cultivation in Southern Ontario in 2016 than there was in 1951. Yields for some crops had doubled or tripled. Amazingly, their report indicated that cropland was being lost 33 times faster in the area that is the Greenbelt than in the rest of Ontario. No explanation for that was offered.
A posting, “Does Toronto’s Growth Reduce Cropland?”, by Friends of Pickering Airport, on their website, paints an excellent picture of the farmland versus cropland discussion. With the Region of Durham Envision project’s projections and with full development of the federal Pickering lands, the loss of regional farmland would amount to approximately 4 acres per day over the next 30 years. Outside of the Toronto region, the total cropland acreage is stable.
The federal Pickering lands are in an area that will double is size (population and jobs) by 2041-2051. Striking the balance, people and jobs over this farmland, is the correct and strategic action for the region.
I wonder who benefits from North Pickering Farms?
Turning over a multi-billion-dollar national asset for 30 years, or maybe in perpetuity, to this group is at the heart of this conversation. Who are these people?
Through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, we have a pretty good understanding of who leases the federal lands. In 2020, there were 290 leases covering virtually all of the non-natural heritage area of the federal lands. Agricultural leases accounted for 93 percent of that land area. There were 182 agricultural leases.
Who held those leases is interesting. 153 of the 182 agricultural leases, controlling 87 percent of the total farmland, were held by just 24 entities. Five (5) were major commercial farm corporations (110 leases, holding 55 percent of the farmland). Nineteen (19) private individuals, names redacted in the FOI, held 43 leases. These were properties greater than 10 acres, covering another 32 percent of the farmland.
The 5 commercial farm operators were identified, and it is logical that they would be interested in continuing to farm the federal lands. But who are the other 19 individuals?
In the interest of transparency, the relationship between these 24 parties and the North Pickering Farms proposal should be publicly known to understand who locally will directly benefit from the proposal. Maybe these parties have a role in North Pickering Farms, maybe they don’t. And if not them, then who else is involved? Who is asking for control of billions in public land and millions a year in public subsidies?
Should farming elsewhere in Southern Ontario have to compete against a potential North Pickering Farms company, that leases public lands far below market value, which benefits an entitled few?
Any discussion of the federal Pickering lands and farmland must not be reduced to “Save Class 1 Farmland”. It is complicated and multi-dimensional.
There is no business case for the government to subsidize farming on the publicly owned land in North Pickering.
An Economic Analysis of Rural Land Use Policies in Ontario, Glenn Fox, Yi Wang, The Fraser Institute, January 2016
Does Toronto’s Growth Reduce Cropland?, pickeringairport.org, November 2022
A Future for the Lands: Economic Impact of Remaining Pickering Federal Lands if Returned to Permanent Agriculture”, Econometric Research Ltd., JRG Consulting Group, January 2018