By Keith Roulston
On the edge of our village over the past couple of years, a few acres of farmland have been transformed into additional housing for dozens of residents, with a home for seniors still to come.
In general, I’ve been excited about the development. Our rural towns and villages need to grow or die. Already over the last few decades, their main streets, once the beating heart of such communities, have become ghostly as local residents turned first to regional shopping centres and, recently, to billion-dollar international online merchants.
But sometimes, as I read of new concerns about the loss of productive farmland, I question my support for the village’s expansion. Sure, only four or five acres of farmland have disappeared but that’s only a matter of degrees from the major urban developments that swallow up whole farms by the hundreds. In a twisted logic, land used to grow food to keep us alive is less valuable than covered with homes larger than people really need, with microscopic backyards.
Yet at the same time, the farming community has been busy converting land serving a natural purpose to productive farmland. Billions have been spent on draining wetlands – even areas that are only temporarily wet in the spring or after a major rainfall. After all, it seems like wasted land when it’s not being used productively to grow crops.
But over the years of covering both farm news through The Rural Voice, and the wider community through our community newspaper, I was made to see that land that can be viewed from a farming perspective as “wasted” because it flooded temporarily, has important value as a temporary ponding area that prevents the flushing of water into brooks and rivers where the rushing water can erode banks, sending polluted, silty water into the Great Lakes and causing expensive flooding in urban communities along the river.
As we have slowly, often reluctantly, accepted the reality of climate change and listened to the scientists, we’ve also come to value trees, which purify the air and store carbon. The world has been appalled as Brazil encouraged the burning of the Amazon rainforest, often called the lungs of the world, so the country’s farmers could grow more soybeans and corn.
The temptation to add a few almost-free acres to a farm has caused many an Ontario farmer to bulldoze scarce woodlots on their farms. Municipalities, pushed by Conservation Authorities, have passed bylaws requiring permits before any significant removal of trees can take place. Many landowners resented this interference with their right to do as they please on their land.
A while back, while doing some historic research, I read the Huron County 1879 Belden Historic Atlas. The book includes a profile of each of the county’s 16 original townships. Townships were celebrated if they had a high percentage of land that had been “improved” since European settlers began arriving and clearing the land a half-century earlier.
Some of that land, as we now know, was not exactly improved by the back-breaking efforts to cut down the forest and was never good farmland. Eventually some of it was bought by the county and reforested.
We also know that for a healthy environment we need a minimum of the land’s surface to be covered by trees and wetlands. Counties that had so much land suitable for farming that nearly all the woodlots disappeared, are now seen as having a deficiency of natural areas.
But wetlands and forests have little monetary value in our society. They are “improved” for farmland and further upgraded for residential or industrial use, even though both natural areas that clean the air and land used to feed us are invaluable.◊