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Losing the farm: When the city eats up our land and our family history

conor nolan The Globe and Mail

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From where I stand, atop my favourite knoll on the farm, I can see clear across the eight remaining acres of strawberry fields and the apple orchards. I watch as a plane above them drops its landing gear ready for touchdown at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. 2013 will mark the last year for the farm, and I take another useless swipe at my eyes as tears continue to fall.

It's the end of an era – the family farm is done. Sold. Earmarked for a subdivision development as the ever-greedy, ever-encroaching city of Brampton, Ont., eats up our land, our homes and our family history.

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The farms are all sold now – our cousins have mostly moved on to fairer fields, far from developers, in the Georgian Bay area. My brother is heading in the other direction, finding land on the shores of Lake Erie, to keep a bit of farming in his future.

For me, as I survey the farm that cradled my childhood, strengthened my young arms and witnessed my father's death, the tears are no longer about this beloved land. I always knew development was inevitably in its future, so I have grieved its passing for most of my life. What hurts now is feeling displaced, lost even, as though I have been pulled up by the roots.

The family story of the Ferris of Huttonville will soon be a distant memory: my dad Nick (Nicola) and his brothers, Al (Aldo), Quint (Quinto) and Mac (Mario), just local legends from the time when Heritage Road was known as the Fifth Line, and Al drove his rusty pickup on the dirt road with the driver door open so he could make a speedy exit at his brother's farm. No time for doors, no patience for rules.

Al created Al Ferri's Apples & Berries kingdom. He ran a tight operation, sat on Peel regional council, pioneered pick-your-own in the area. He embraced the earth, his family and a Wild West that he never knew. Wise, funny and sometimes difficult, Al wore his cowboy hat every day, called his farm the Ponderosa and even gave his youngest son the nickname Hoss.

Al had earned his reputation for impatience early – at 2, he jumped from an upper-floor window to get outside more quickly. As he lay in the dirt, his mother didn't bother with the doctor. She called the priest. But little Al had other plans for his life and lived to carry them out, through the Second World War and far beyond.

Of the four brothers, Quint became the philosopher. His intelligence was respected; his fields were always impeccable. He embraced the farm and his books when others embraced war. The only surviving brother, Quint was always known to be kind, generous and usually patient with his brothers' more demanding natures.

Mac was the eldest, but personality-wise somewhere in between Al and Quint. The war made him hard, but farming kept him real. He loved his independence, and as a former air force mechanic he had a well-deserved reputation for being in tune with most machinery. His speech was soft, and his delivery often measured. But his mind was quick, his thoughts were deep and the twinkle in his eye always at the ready.

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My mother remembers Mac showing a group of female apple pickers how to put up a ladder one day. He set it up, climbed quickly and just as quickly fell off the top, much to the mirth of the watching women. While his pride may have been wounded, Mac would always nod and smile when the story was shared at family gatherings.

My dad, Nick, was the competitor – on and off the farm. A natural athlete, he was a national lacrosse hall-of-famer, a skilled hockey player and former coach of the Georgetown Raiders. He boxed at Massey Hall – and, to his mother's horror, his nose was broken a second time (the first was with a lacrosse stick). He could grow anything he touched. He was a fighter off the sports fields as well, protesting on the front lines for causes he believed in – mostly the greater good of farmers and the greater good of Canada. He gave his life, literally, to his farm in a tractor accident 12 years ago in January while gathering wood.

But this story is about more than the Ferri brothers and my own childhood. Their pick-your-own destinations became a regular part of summer for many people in the Greater Toronto Area. A significant part of our Canadian history is rapidly disappearing – a rural life buried under concrete sprawl.

Standing on that knoll on the farm, I pick up a handful of dirt and let it sift slowly through my fingers.

There is a grading of farmland, similar to school report cards. This land is labelled Class 1 by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. It used to be called Grade A1 by the former Ministry of Agriculture – when agriculture was important enough to have its own ministry. That means the soil on our family farm is numero uno, the best. A retired Ontario agricultural official told me last year that the finest farmland in Canada could once be seen from where the CN Tower now sits.

While there are many family members in a nearby cemetery on Winston Churchill Boulevard, the Ferri name won't be associated much longer with the village of Huttonville. But in our family, Huttonville will always be the name of our historical home. And my utopian childhood near the banks of the meandering Credit River will always exist in my dreams.

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Laura Ferri Redman lives in Bracebridge, Ont.

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