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The Globe and Mail

Foodstock: Back to the farm, but with knives in hand

On a wooded lot cut with winding pathways 120 kilometres north of Toronto, a united front of city and country folk will amass on Sunday to mount their advance in an ongoing clash.

An army of 100 Canadian chefs, including many of Toronto's finest, will form the heart of the contingent, which aims to smother the enemy with a feast – sturgeon chowder, rabbit rillette profiteroles, pickled squash, pulled pork, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and potatoes – harvested from the waters and land the motley cadre is set to avenge.

Galvanizing them and the thousands of people they're hoping to draw to the pay-what-you-can event, called Foodstock, is a controversial proposal by The Highland Companies, an American-backed entity intent on transforming 765 hectares of Ontario's best farmland into one of the largest limestone quarries on the continent. Money raised at the feast will go toward hiring experts the anti-quarry movement needs to build their case.

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"There's a really strong movement towards local food," said Jamie Kennedy, the acclaimed Toronto chef whose mastery with Ontario potatoes took spuds from fast food to trendy, and whose championship of regional ingredients launched a provincewide obsession. "My focus is on that and there's a threat not only to the land, but to the water," he said.

Michael Stadtlander, the chef and environmentalist behind Eigensinn Farm in Singhampton, about 20 km from the proposed quarry, is the dean who mobilized the chef corps for the event, which will feature the likes of Victor Barry (Splendido, The County General), Keith Froggett (Scaramouche) and Alexandra Feswick (Brockton General).

"We are really at the dawn of local food in Canada. I think it's very important that we are saving the places that grow food for us," he said. "It's not acceptable to dig that pit. The people in power have to listen."

The quarry will be designed to excavate high-quality limestone deposits that sit well below the water table. Projections show that up to 600 million litres of water will have to be pumped from the cavity each day to keep the work surface dry. Experts continue to study the implications for local rivers, cold-water fisheries and Southern Ontario's water supply .

Plans for the quarry were first made public last March by Highland, which has spent several years amassing potato farms in Melancthon and Mulmur Townships by offering to pay aged farmers above-market value for their land. Central to the company's sales pitch was their goal of becoming the largest potato operation in the province.

To many, the notion initially made sense: larger farms allow efficiencies of enough scale to create decent profits. With a global food crisis looming, the need to optimize agricultural production is well known.

But then, long before news of the quarry was official, archaeologists began cropping up in the fields; holes were dug not for irrigation, but to probe what lay beneath the Class 1 dirt. Suspicions rose. Residents, including a sizeable crop of influential city dwellers who own second homes in Melancthon and Mulmur, began to feel they had fallen victim to an underhanded bait-and-switch, that Highland was not transparent about their ultimate plans. Acrimony gave rise to a battle over the area's rich resources, which many see as the first in a long line of similar struggles Canadians are bound to face.

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"This land could feed people for generations to come, hundreds of years," said Ralph Armstrong, a 69-year-old farmer whose family has worked land in Melancthon since 1853. "Some people think it's just dirt, but … it's not uncommon for farmers up here to be asked to be buried with their soil."

For its part, Highland has accomplished its goal of becoming the province's top potato producer. It grows, packs and sells about 100 million pounds of potatoes (45.4 million kg) per year and grows barley, alfalfa and other field crops.

"We have a big commitment to farming," company principal John Scherer said during an interview with The Globe and Mail, explaining that agriculture will feature prominently in the company's future. While the quarry plans call for the eventual excavation of about 930 of the 2,630 hectares the company owns near Melancthon, Mr. Scherer said Highland envisions the project unfolding in stages over the next 50 to 100 years. As land is emptied of limestone aggregate it would be returned to agricultural use – the company would spread soil at the bottom of the pit, although keeping it dry would require continual pumping. Mr. Scherer said 85 per cent of the company's holdings "will continue as active farmland over the long term."

Skepticism among Melancthon residents over whether Highland will keep its word is fuelled by one lingering question: Why did the company wait until last March – years after their original buying spree – to reveal plans for a massive quarry?

Joseph Izhakoff, another principal, told The Globe and Mail the company did not mislead landowners.

"We did exactly what we told people we were going to do," he said, referring to the potato operation. "When we came to Melancthon … we knew there was aggregate, but just knowing there's aggregate doesn't mean you're going to be able to develop a quarry," he said.

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Fortunately for the company, which is backed by the Boston-based hedge fund Baupost Group, a private company with a propensity for buying land likely to increase in value (it recently paid more than $140-million for 10,117 hectares of California coastline), tests uncovered a coveted form of limestone.

Called Amabel dolostone, the rock is particularly valuable in the Greater Toronto Area because of increasing demand for high-quality aggregate, which is used to build highways and other infrastructure. In a report published last year, the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources said Ontario consumes 164 million tonnes of aggregate per year; that number could hit 186 million tonnes over the next two decades.

The report called on industry to seek new sources within 75 km of the GTA, although much of the land ringing the city is protected by Green Belt status or the Niagara Escarpment. In Melancthon, where land is prime but unprotected by statutes, Highland is sitting on virtual gold. The company says it would like to sell 90 per cent of it to customers in the GTA.

"It's not going out of Ontario," Mr. Scherer said. As for allegations the company plans to sell water they mine from the site, Mr. Izhakoff shot them down.

"There is no plan to do anything with the water other than to put it back into the ground," he said.

Still, it's not clear if the company's bid will be successful. In September, the provincial government took the unprecedented step of demanding an Environmental Assessment Review of the proposal (no quarry in Ontario has ever been required to undergo a review). The process could take years to complete.

"It's a marathon, not a sprint," said Melancthon mayor Bill Hill.

There is no immediate potato shortage on the horizon in Ontario. But the chefs who will travel north on Sunday still offer quarry opponents a unique edge. Our collective culinary obsession has given chefs star status – they wield more power and influence today than ever before. Stepping into the quarry debate will be a litmus test of whether that influence can reach the broader political community.

"We have a lot of good energy and it's just the start," Mr. Stadtlander said.

Anti-quarry folks are grateful for the help.

"It is insane to do this quarry," said Maude Barlow, a Canadian activist who chairs the Washington-based Food and Water Watch. "This is part of a broader global resource grab going on."

With populations projected to double by 2050, sovereign countries and savvy investment companies have increasingly bought up farmland and water rights around the world as a form of extra security. While the situation in Canada is hardly dire, some say the outcome of the Melancthon tussle will set an important precedent for which resources are priorities to protect.

"This truly highlights that there's only so much farmland in the country," said Carl Cosack, vice chair of the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Taskforce, one of the citizen groups opposing the quarry. "Somewhere along the line, Canada is going to have to create a national food policy and a national water policy."

For now, the push for food has united an unlikely crew in Melancthon.

"This has given us this rallying point around which rural and urban communities can realize our common interests," said Paul Decampo, president of Slow Food Toronto. "We have much more in common than we can ever be separated by."

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