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MELANCTHON, ONT. — Here in Melancthon, farmers love the land so much they etch pictures of their homesteads on family gravestones.
When they die in this township — an idyllic stretch of rolling farmlands that juts out of Shelburne, just north of Orangeville — they are buried with a handful of the rich soil in their caskets. So it seemed a somewhat bold gesture when strangers suddenly came calling, offering to take the land off their hands.
Ralph and Mary Lynne Armstrong remember their first encounter in the fall of 2006. A man swung round to inquire if they were interested in selling their 80-hectare cattle and pig farm. “You could retire, head to Florida for the winters,” said the man, who evidently didn’t know much about whom he was talking to.
Ralph, whose red-chapped cheeks reveal a lifetime exposed to the elements, laughs at the thought of lounging in the sun. “I could stand sitting in a chair on the beach for five minutes most,” he says. Most mornings, he’s in the barn before dawn.
There were other visits, seven in total.
Between 2006 and 2008 the Armstrongs and dozens of others were offered nearly $20,000 per hectare for their land, a price well above market value.
About 30 sold their properties. Some were large 400-hectare potato operations like Wilson and Downey Farms; others, small farmers nearing retirement with no future generation to take up the business. Altogether, about 2,630 hectares were amassed for what would eventually become the site of a proposed limestone quarry — among the largest in North America, roughly a third of the size of downtown Toronto.
The man behind the land deals was John Lowndes, a civil engineer who went to high school in Orangeville and whose family business is aggregates — the stones, sand and gravel extracted from the ground and used to build Ontario’s roads, skyscrapers, hospitals and homes.
Local farmers say Lowndes touted a vision of becoming the largest potato producer in the province, of building a large potato-processing plant nearby and of working with Frito Lays.
Lyle Parsons, a cattle farmer, said he would have never sold his 150-year-old family acreage in the spring of 2007 if he knew then what he knows now. He and other farmers say they were led to believe their land would become a very large potato farm.
“In the area we’re used to dealing with people pretty much on a handshake basis,” says Parsons, adding he felt pressured to sell because he was told the deal would expire in a week.
“I think most people knew there was limestone under there, but I don’t think anybody thought for a moment someone would ruin that farmland.”
The natural resources in Dufferin County, home to Melancthon, overlap naturally.
The Honeywood silt loam soil, created from windblown silts and sands following the retreat of glaciers more than 10,000 years ago, is rated class 1 agricultural soil, among the best in Ontario. Coupled with the cool climate, it’s particularly good for growing potatoes. The moisture-rich soil separates easily from spuds when farmers dig them from the ground.
The limestone that lies beneath the soil is known as Amabel dolostone, and this particular 400-million-year-old sedimentary outcropping of the Niagara Escarpment — with a durability and strength that helps structures endure — makes it among the highest quality stone in the province. This Amabel strip runs from roughly Burlington all the way north to Manitoulin.
Ontarians are among the world’s highest consumers of crushed rock, gravel and stone — an average 164 million tonnes per year, the equivalent of one truck load per person. Put another way, enough is extracted to bury much of downtown Toronto under 60 feet annually.
The Ministry of Transportation is the province’s number one consumer of aggregate. It takes 2,590 truckloads of gravel to build one kilometre of highway.
As the GTA’s population grows, the amount consumed is expected to rise 13 per cent to 186 million tonnes annually over the next two decades while high-quality reserves diminish, according to a government and consultancy report on aggregate resources completed last year. The report also concluded that 93 per cent of unlicensed bedrock in south-central Ontario is constrained by agriculture, environmental features like wetlands, and development.
Because of this, mega-quarries — defined as having a reserve of at least 150 million tonnes — are now considered among the “most feasible” sources of aggregate to meet the province’s needs.
In Melancthon, an estimated reserve of one billion tonnes sits under the site of the proposed quarry, supersizing even a mega-quarry. It’s enough to help service the province’s aggregate needs for decades to come.
But farmers, environmentalists, urbanites and aboriginals are collectively sounding the alarm, warning the mega-quarry will destroy the best remaining farmland in Ontario. They also say it will conceivably affect the safety of drinking water for up to one million people.
For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/article/1108875–anatomy-of-a-quarry-fight