A rural revolution: The farmers are revolting

By Trevor Tucker

Is cutting down a 200-year-old elm tree in the Glebe the same as felling one for firewood to heat a farmhouse in the winter? If the City of Ottawa expropriated the whole front yard of your home, wouldn't you expect some form of compensation? Would you still pay taxes on it? What would turn normally quiet, traditional farming families into angry protestors, calling for tax revolts or burning effigies of Dalton McGuinty and Paul Martin?

One hundred tractors line the highway at an intersection on Ottawa's western fringe. A middle-aged man in red suspenders shouts into a bullhorn atop a wooden flatbed trailer. He's talking about frustrated farmers who are not being heard by elected officials. He's talking about getting property rights enshrined in the Constitution. Around him are people of all ages, some wearing rubber boots, others holding babies, most dressed in overalls. Many of these members of the Lanark Landowners Association (LLA) have pledged to do whatever it takes, including jail time, to be heard. With annual farming incomes in the $20,000 range, these folks believe they have nothing to lose. Young and old, they hold signs proclaiming: "This land is our land – Back off, government.”

This is a new kind of Green Revolution: it's the Rural Revolution. Rural landowners everywhere are feeling the pinch as more government departments tell them what can and cannot be done on privately owned land. What was once considered private property — the full responsibility and privilege of the owner — has become full responsibility only, with little privilege of any sort left. Property owners are subjected to a new labyrinth of laws and bylaws. Sawmills and sugar bushes have gone out of business after the legal definition of "industrial" was redefined as "any raw product processed into another product." Others have lost access to parts of their land when the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) deemed it "buffer" or "wetlands," without any adjustment to the owner's taxes.

Lanark farmer Merle Bowes discovered that his entire farm was deemed "buffer" for an "aggregate resource" on the neighbouring land, as he was making plans to build a new home. "I didn't know and none of my neighbours knew until I went to the township to get a permit!," he recalls. "It doesn't show up on title search, only when you see the actual township plan. We're being robbed of our land right under our noses, and not given a penny for it.”

For many rural Ottawans, the same underlying assumptions about private land show up in Ottawa's bylaws, Ontario's Clean Water Act and the MNR's protection of deer at the expense of farmers' livelihoods. To many, private property is quickly becoming collective property.

At The Mercy of City Meddlers

With municipal amalgamation in 2001, Ottawa became the Farming Capital of Canada. About 90% of the land within its expanded boundaries is considered rural.

With amalgamation, the city's bylaws were extended to its new boundaries. Farmers were not allowed to kill predators; they couldn't burn without a permit; they were subjected to noise restrictions; woodlot owners may be subjected to reams of paperwork and have an inspector check their lot before the owner can cut firewood for the winter. According to Adele Muldoon, a former candidate for city council in West Carleton: "The City was trying to apply the same bylaws to a rural landowner as an urban resident, then they would make concessions as if they were doing us a big favor. It was always the urban bylaw, in some cases adjusted for the rural areas."

As Bruce Hudson, who farms 800 acres in West Carleton, puts it: "It's like Big Brother coming up and stealing your toys and then charging you for looking after them. Thanks, but we were doing just fine before.”

Lack of representation

As with the beef crisis, farmers feel that government has turned a deaf ear toward their plight. Says Bob McKinley, a retired lawyer and president of the Rural Council, an advocacy group seeking to unite various rural associations: "Farmers are now a minority group with politicians and bureaucrats who really don't know or care about rural issues.”

Recently, the Rural Council polled 1,500 residents of Ottawa's outlying communities. To the question, "Are you satisfied with the governance being provided to you by the City of Ottawa since amalgamation?," over 90% polled voiced disapproval. They were then asked, "Would you support de-amalgamation as an option?" Over 84% said yes. "We're being told by professional pollsters that this is statistically valid," McKinley notes.

Why the dissatisfaction? Some cite a lack of representation. With only three votes out of 22 representing exclusively rural areas, politicians who are not accountable to farms and farmers make most of city council's decisions. "Rural residents don't feel connected," says McKinley. "Urban councillors have a longstanding record of ignoring the rural voice. The organization of governance and its lack of accountability is a big issue. Because we are a minority, we get the short end of the stick. They maintain unnecessary programs where the votes are and we don't get value for our money."

With the strong showing of rural disfavour in the last municipal election, the Rural Council will seek to "further polarize" the vote in the next election. McKinley adds, "Our view is the smaller, directly elected municipal councils were a government for people… the new arrangement is a government of people."

Zoned-Out Hogs

Post-amalgamation, the first major issue to reveal the City's strong urban/rural split was the buffer zone bylaw.

In the summer of 2003, after several years of planning and consultation, Ontario introduced The Nutrient Management Act. This legislation, developed by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Environment and Energy, creates Ontario-wide standards for the management of nutrients applied to land. The main purpose of the new regulations is to manage all land-applied materials in a sustainable way and protect the environment, water and rural communities. As a provincial law, it seeks to balance these regulations so farmers can continue to invest in their farms, and remain competitive.

However, the City of Ottawa then went and enacted the "buffer zone" bylaw. After a Quebec-based hogfarming operation bought a dairy farm in Sarsfield to convert it to a large hog operation, local residents were up in arms. Ottawa first tried to stop the operation by passing a bylaw that wasn't operative. The City ended up hiring two lawyers—one to fight for the residents by suing its own chief building inspector who had issued the permit to the farm's owners, and the other to fight against the residents to defend the same official. The provincial Minister of Housing and Municipal Affairs threw out the case and awarded costs — the City's being about $1 million.

This bylaw imposes a separation distance or buffer zone of 3 km between an intensive hogfarm and any "village, residential, institutional or environmental zones already existing." This is to mitigate possible problems with contamination of water supply and odours. The bylaw's proponents feel that the amounts of manure produced by intensive hogfarming operations "belong in industrial parks" rather than on farmland. Others raise the issue of economics, pointing out that these large farms can discourage investment in the area.

While many farmers agree that these are serious considerations, they contend that if the City assumes jurisdiction over farms, imposing another regulatory standard, the farmers will completely lose their ability to compete. Some believe that farms subject to the City of Ottawa's bylaws will be gone in five years. As Muldoon puts it, "For starters, it makes it easy for large, outside farming operations to come in. It also means that the family farmer can't grow because he can no longer grow where he is. It would force farmers to sell their farms cheaply. The City doesn't see that." According to the Ottawa Farmers Business Association (OFBA), this bylaw will make it "impossible to survive.”

Meanwhile, Ontario's existing Bill 81 addresses the issue more effectively, using a science-based approach developed over years of deliberation; the Bill has the power to supersede the City's bylaw every time. Bill 81 has maximum separation allowances, but its cap on the size of operations is determined by the farm's landbase… not on the farm's distance from a village.

Many are surprised by the City's sudden foray into these traditionally provincial and federal areas of jurisdiction. Jack MacLaren, a farmer and the OFBNs secretary, says: "The City's real issue is aesthetics.”

Many farmers believe the City is trying to set a precedent on the principle of municipalities fighting the province. The City's own legal staff advised city council that it has no jurisdiction in agriculture. The City has no agricultural department, and according to Bob McKinley, of the 12,000 to 14,000 municipal employees, not one represents the interests of farmers in a professional capacity. Alluding to the pesticide issue, McKinley observes that: "Products regulated and tested at the federal level seem to be safe at the federal level. If the food and drug lab says it's okay, what competence does the City have to make a different decision? These issues have always been under provincial jurisdiction, recognizing farming as an industry. But if each municipality has jurisdiction over this industry… it's like having a municipal building code for each city. It'd be crazy for each city to have its own building code.”

Perhaps this is why the Planning and Development Committee first rejected the buffer zone bylaw, voting against it. However, city council then passed it by one vote — that vote belonging to Mayor Bob Chiarelli.

In 2003, when farmers tried to bridge the gap between themselves and city council, there was little response. To one event, where farmers had flown in an expert biologist to answer council's questions about contentious environmental issues, only two city council members showed up. To another event where council members were invited to visit farms where experts would be on-site to answer questions, less than half showed up and no councillors who voted in favour of the buffer zone bylaw were in attendance. Yet local farms account for 10,000 jobs and contribute $500 million annually to Ottawa's economy.

Not backing down, the City is taking the buffer zone bylaw and the decision by the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to the Ontario Municipal Board in September. "They will spend another $300,000 to fight something they know they will lose," says Muldoon. "The City is continuing the battle just to save face. They use our tax money, so they have unlimited resources.”

Clean Drinking Water Inaccessible Due to New Provincial Regulations

Provincial laws are also tightening the grip on farmers and other rural residents. In the wake of the Walkerton Commission of Inquiry into tainted drinking water, rural communities were hit with the Ontario Safe Drinking Water Act in 2003. Legislation that was passed quickly in an effort to prevent another such disaster has become a serious property rights issue to many. McKinley explains: "Under these regulations, the civil liberties of church groups and community organizations rank below those of individuals and terrorists."

Under Section 81 of the Act, inspectors are given sweeping powers: "A provincial officer may, at any reasonable time and without a warrant or court order, conduct an inspection for the purposes of determining compliance of any person with this Act or the regulations."

Further, "a provincial officer may do any one or more of the following in the course of conducting an inspection: enter any place where the provincial officer reasonably believes a drinking-water system or part of a drinking-water system is located; enter any place where the provincial officer reasonably believes documents (will be found) that relate to an activity or undertaking that is, or is required to be, the subject of a certificate, permit, licence, approval, agreement or order under this Act; record the condition of a place or a part of the natural environment by means of a photograph, video recording or other visual recording; make necessary excavations." And all without a warrant.

Under Section 86, residents may be barred from the premises during an inspection or a search. Even police officers do not have this privilege.

For many, the costs inherent in the new codes are prohibitive. The program requires all institutions and businesses to engage in significant programs, testing and capital expenditure. The capital cost for the City of Ottawa is $1.2 million and the annual operating cost is now $500,000 to maintain its 103 public wells. When the City threatens to close community centres, it's no wonder; at the Kinburn Community Centre, the City has already spent $50,000 in upgrades to its water system. Individual farmers could face well over $20,000 in costs to renew their own water systems.

In rural Canada, churches and community centres are the hubs of society. Under the auspices of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, all non-municipal water supplies, churches, clubs and other rural locations must meet the new regulations. Says McKinley; "The province is regulating them out of existence. There's no regard in the legislation to the fact that many of these wells have been functioning well for over 100 years. The ministry functionaries will admit they made no assessment of the costs and the kinds of groups they are expecting to spend the money. And it wasn't even well water in Walkerton that got polluted… it was piped water." As Bruce Hudson puts it: "All this inconvenience because a couple of guys didn't do their job."

Deer Allowed to Roam Unfettered

Finally, one of the most volatile issues for the Rural Revolution is deer. Many farmers claim these animals are robbing them of their livelihood. Some farmers are losing upwards of $50,000 in crops annually to deer. Farmer John Vanderspank has lost $30,000 every year for four years. His neighbour Merle Bowes, who has an 8-foot-high, MNR-approved electric fence, lost his pea crop this year. A local cash cropper recently lost $23,000 in soybeans. Bowes, a Rural Revolutionary, tells of a neighbour who, with permits, shot 77 deer on his property. Yet it's still not unusual to see 50 or 60 deer on that man's farm.

The MNR estimates the area's deer population at 18,000—which means it is running at 150% capacity. Why the increase? "Because they're being so well fed," says Vanderspank.

So on a Saturday in June, the LLA and the Rural Revolution held their Second Annual Nuisance Deer Harvest. The group was met with six trucks carrying gun-toting MNR officials in body armour, a search plane and a canine unit sent in from Timmins The MNR didn't find the killed deer. To the local farmers, "it was clear that their intent was to intimidate us."

According to the LLA, the MNR's new policy on deer management was to have been tabled by March 19 — long before cropping season. In fact, the proposed policy came out on June 12 and was then open to 30 days' discussion before final approval.

Again, farmers feel as though they are being ignored. Says Randy Hillier, president of the LLA and Rural Revolution: "There's something wrong when some bureaucrat in Kemptville can sit in his armchair earning $70,000 and say, 'I don't care, Mr. Farmer, if you lose $10,000 in crops. The farmer's ability to feed his family is far more important than deer:' Hillier adds: "We've been in meetings for months now with the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters (Ontario's largest non-profit conservation organization) and environmental people. We told them during the process that this new policy should be in place before crops are planted, or we'd start issuing our own deer removal permits."

The LLA has been doing so since April. Now, a group of farmers gathers "as required" to protect their land by hunting deer. At times it's become a regular showdown with the MNR. The farmers have been known to barricade the arriving MNR trucks and warn, "You'd better get off; this is private land."

The farmers say they won't back down. According to a statement issued by the LLA: "The bureaucratic path the LLA has travelled to find justice is littered with broken MNR promises, corrupt agendas, and rutted with bureaucratic ignorance, intimidation and open and transparent deception. Although we have followed this MNR process, it leads nowhere, and the injustice weighs heavily on the backs of common people and defies common sense.”


A common thread running through all of the issues around the Rural Revolution is that of the private good versus the public good. Farmers say their land is private; government regulations (without compensation) suggest that land is public and open to any and all public restrictions. The new laws are developed by the public (through government), yet the farmers bear the financial brunt. "Farmers feel they just can't afford it," says Muldoon. "For example, the province is saying the farmers are having to put in expensive waste management controls, but the province can change the rules within one year. Right now, nobody knows what to do. Rules are being introduced without thought and coordination. New rules carry new expenses. Is it time to get out of farming?"

The historical rural/urban tension is stamped on every issue. Urban residents don't often grasp what goes on in the country. Farmers feel that bureaucrats and environmentalists assume they know more about farming and land management than the farmers themselves. The land is a farmer's livelihood and usually has been for generations. Long before environmental regulations came into effect, farmers knew they couldn't hope to compete and survive without maintaining a healthy and sustainable environment.

And city-bred politicians fail to ask many fundamental questions before issuing legislation. How does the cost to a farmer of building a new well and septic system compare to that of an individual homeowner in an urban area? Is shooting a racoon in Centertown the same as a farmer shooting a pesky groundhog? Should someone or something be allowed to come onto your property and steal your capital?

Lois Hudson, farming with her husband in Perth, argues for strong public education on agriculture and the farming life. She says emphatically, "If we don't have agriculture, we don't eat. The public doesn't understand two central truths: where our food really comes from, and that our farmers cannot afford the extra burdens placed on them by government."

Many foresee horrendous results if the strong-arm tactics of government are not terminated. Statistics already show that the average age for a farmer is 53. Only 10.5% are under 35. In our area alone, there was a loss of 356 farms between 1986 and 2001. In that time, an average of 24 farms was lost every year. Across Ontario, 9,000 farms vanished between 1991 and 2001.

Janne Campbell, a spokesperson for the LLA, recently talked to a farm family who had just taken out a second mortgage. "They feel like the bank may as well take the farm as no one else wants it, not even the kids," she said. Will there be any farms left for the next generation?

Like many farmers, Campbell is "a normally quiet person," but in her tone we get an idea of the rising tensions as she stands to make a speech at a recent Rural Revolution rally: "Thomas Jefferson who co-wrote the Declaration of Independence said: 'When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.' Together we will conquer this tyranny.”