Is the Bradford Bypass good for farmers?

OPINION: The controversial highway has real merits — but its critics are not all downtown activists
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Nov 12, 2021
Producers are at the mercy of one of the busiest stretches of highway in the province. (Boris Spremo/CP)

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The Holland Marsh is one of the jewels of Ontario’s farmland. Drained for agriculture in the early 20th century, the soils of the lowlands where the Holland River meets Cook’s Bay in Lake Simcoe produce a disproportionate share of Ontario’s vegetables, primarily onions and carrots — enough carrots that each Canadian could eat 1.8 kilograms’ worth every year — but the selection is diversifying to match the changing tastes of Ontario consumers. It’s an area of the province that critics allege could be put at risk if the Tory government at Queen’s Park gets its wish and builds the Bradford Bypass, a proposed 400-series highway linking the 400 and 404.

“I want one of those people in Toronto to come and live here, just for a day,” says Jody Mott, executive director of the Holland Marsh Growers Association. “This is an essential piece of infrastructure the farmers require to ship our produce, that feeds 55 per cent of Ontario.”

Currently, farmers in Holland Marsh are largely dependent on the 400 to take their produce south to the GTA, which leaves them at the mercy of one of the busiest stretches of highway in the province. On a good day, that can mean unanticipated delays; even something banal — the surge of traffic during cottaging season, for example — can add time and stress.

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Which in part explains why advocacy for the Bradford Bypass began well before the Doug Ford government was elected, why the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne studied it, and why current Liberal leader Steven Del Duca has said he’s open to it.

But the unique nature of the Holland Marsh is precisely why its critics say the Bradford Bypass shouldn’t be built.

“It will pave over 17 hectares of the Holland Marsh, destroy 39 hectares of wildlife habitat and 10 hectares of provincially significant wetlands, cause groundwater contamination, and put Lake Simcoe and the Greenbelt at risk, all while increasing climate pollution by 87 million kilograms a year,” Green Party leader Mike Schreiner stated in question period at Queen’s Park earlier this month, citing numbers from the province’s own (outdated) environmental assessment. The Tories have promised to update the environmental assessment for the Bradford Bypass, but they’ve also said it will be built.

Mott takes issue with several of the charges against the Bradford Bypass but flatly denies that it will put some of Ontario’s best farmland at risk either directly (by way of the land it occupies) or indirectly (the story of housing and other development following the construction of new highways is a long one in Ontario).

“If you go to the 400 right now, there are businesses being built north of the Marsh — we have that happening anyway,” Mott says, adding that the proposed path of the highway would affect three operating farms, which have all known about the possibility of a new highway for more than a decade.

The absence of the Bradford Bypass, Mott argues, is hurting local farms in numerous ways: there’s spillover traffic, careless motorists toss trash out their windows and onto farmer’s fields.

“We’re growing farms; we don’t have walls,” Mott says. “We need the traffic alleviated — we really do. Commuter traffic isn’t good for the farms.”

Ford has mocked environmental concerns over his government’s highway plans, saying that criticisms are coming from “downtown activists.”

“Just sitting there, telling people to get on a bicycle or get behind a horse and buggy and start driving, it doesn’t cut it,” Ford said Wednesday. “That’s the ideology of a lot of people who are from downtown Toronto, making their comments from up here in Caledon.”

Approximately 1,000 kilometres from downtown Toronto, Peggy Brekveld is a dairy farmer in Thunder Bay and president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. The OFA has spent years advocating to preserve Ontario’s farmlands and has called for the province to conduct an agricultural-impact assessment as part of its highway plans.

“All highways, all developments, for us, we think really need an agricultural-impact assessment,” Brekveld says. “Only about 5 per cent of the province of Ontario is arable land, and we’re losing about 175 acres a day to development.” It’s not just land directly lost to highway construction that people need to be concerned about, she says: 400-series highways can be impenetrable barriers for farm equipment, potentially “stranding” fields that a farmer can’t get a tractor to, or severing contiguous farmland into smaller, unusable plots.

Because of her desire to preserve as much farmland as possible, Brekveld is advocating for the same policies supported by downtown Toronto urbanists.

“What about inside of the urban footprint? Can we build in and up? Can we ensure that we have intensification around subway lines? While those seem like they’re urban answers, they’re actually also answers for farm communities,” she says.

Brekveld does note, though, that the OFA doesn’t oppose highways: goods need to get to market, and people need places to live.

“It's not us or them. In the end, we are all Ontarians, and this is an excellent conversation at the provincial-government level because it affects all Ontarians,” she says. “Whether you live in the city or live in the country, you eat. And the question isn’t whether that food comes from a farmer — it’s where that farmer is.”

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