Food production in Canada will thrive if farming is profitable,visible and exciting. 

Imagine catching a GO train to see, taste, and pick the best the world grows and prepares all in one place. Imagine picking your own berries and then drinking squeezed juice while watching some frisky goats. Then imagine sitting down to enjoy what can be done with the cheese they supply. That, and more, minutes from downtown Toronto: GO to food and food-to-go.

Food and food-based travel have created thriving local economies in Niagara, Prince Edward County and Vermont. For that matter, Italy and France are often thought of this way. It is exciting to realize that another place in Ontario might emerge that is accessible to millions by public transit (GO train to shuttle bus).

In Toronto (and other large cities) fewer young people are buying cars. Instead, they take transit and rent cars now and then. My Toronto-based sons have never bothered to get driver’s licenses. Many such people can afford and would love nearby day or weekend family trips getting outdoors. If the Land Over Landings group’s vision happens, that experience will become a whole lot easier for millions.

Land Over Landings is the successor to People or Planes featured in an A/J cover story in the autumn of 1972! Both oppose a second Toronto airport on prime farmland just north of Pickering. Their superb study on the economic potential of the 9,600 acres adjacent to the new Rouge Valley National Urban Park, Canada’s first urban national park is now complete.

This priceless near-urban, high quality farmland could become the envy of most global cities. If this study’s vision comes to pass, the world will see the value of having that much farmland in one piece adjacent to a National Park, and close to a huge city. The land is already owned by the Canadian government and the economists who did this study think it should stay that way.

The study’s economic analysts Dr. John Groenewegen and Dr. Atif Kubursi offer six scenarios detailing the economic impacts of various management strategies. These lands annually produce cash crops like corn and soybeans valued at $3.7 million. This land, as well as the park’s land, were placed in reserve for an airport that was never built.

Because the land is leased in short-term contracts, no tenants invest in tiling fields, buildings for animals or equipment or anything like orchards, because these activities only make money after several years. Groenewegen and Kubursi suggest renewable 30-year leases to spur diverse crops. As well, long-term leases could attract relatively young farmers while avoiding high land purchase costs that all-but-exclude non-speculators. This scenario sees these lands generating over $100 million annually from crops and agricultural tourism. Potential crops include widely varied vegetables and fruits and diverse ethnic crops to serve the GTA population as well as livestock.

The economic impact estimates are conservative, as they should be in such a study, but the authors do suggest thoughtful policies to make the transition work. For more detail I highly recommend reading the study, one eminently readable by non-economists. It will open your imagination.

Here’s a little dreaming about what this area could become. Let’s start our dream with one word: branding.  This land will be branded, as well as the crops it produces, and the foods prepared on and near to it. Think of the Big Apple (further east on the 401), think of Ben and Jerry’s and what that one ice cream factory has done for Vermont tourism and Vermont’s economy.

Then consider the possibilities for ethnic food creations including Ethiopian, South American, Asian, Middle Eastern. The possibilities are endless. We can grow most of what is needed right there. Then imagine the possibilities for restaurants and branded products made from produce grown and prepared fresh daily on the doorstep of 10,000,000 people and whoever else wants to come.

These lands could also be a living lab for something else profoundly important: food security. We must be able to produce most of what we need.

There are four reasons to avoid excessive dependence on imported food. One: climate change is already affecting California, our leading source of fresh fruits and vegetables. These impacts will worsen over time. Two: today’s political attacks on immigrants threaten to leave California and Florida produce either unpicked or more expensive. Third, fully using local food production capacities reduces carbon emissions. Innovative farmers are now growing fresh greens in Ontario year round in low-cost passive solar greenhouses. Fourth, Trump’s government is systematically weakening pesticide and water quality regulations, likely affecting the safety of food from America.

The capacity to grow quality food locally (especially year-round) depends on involving young, innovative, diverse people into farming and, of course, on preserving quality farmland. Affordable access to land is essential. Leasing opportunities like the ones suggested by Land over Landings help open such possibilities. Many people want the chance to farm, but their dreams are often financially out of reach given the cost of land.

Food production in Canada will thrive if farming is profitable, visible and exciting. These special lands and nearby communities can blossom with crops and restaurants of incredible variety. Everyone can dine, buy take-away or rent bicycles (maybe electrified by barn roof solar) to go from farm-to-farm picking or buying.

With new places created for overnight stays, there would be more jobs than the study estimates, especially if excellent culinary creations are branded and marketed widely. Visitors who enjoy products or meals will be thrilled to find them available back home in Toronto or elsewhere. Truly, the possibilities are endless.

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