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How a small group of farmers and wealthy weekenders made the Melancthon mega-quarry protest a cause célèbre

An unexpected casualty of Toronto’s building boom is the sleepy southern Ontario township of Melancthon, where an American hedge fund plans to excavate $6 billion worth of limestone.

How a small group of farmers, and wealthy weekenders, made the Melancthon mega-quarry protest a cause célèbre

Fight Club: The farmer-chef Michael Stadtländer helped organize Foodstock, a quarry protest attended by 28,000 people (Image: Jason Van Bruggen)

How a small group of farmers, and wealthy weekenders, made the Melancthon mega-quarry protest a cause célèbreMelancthon’s windswept highlands spread out like a grand table underneath the sky. At 1,700 feet above sea level, southern Ontario’s highest point, the air is different: cool and often foggy, it’s a world away from smog-suffocated Toronto, which lies 100 kilometres to the southeast. The climate is ideal for raising crops, and tens of millions of kilos of potatoes are grown each year in the township’s rich, silty loam. The karst, or fractured limestone, that lies beneath the soil delivers an almost perfect drainage system—no matter how much it rains, crops never flood.

In the last half of the 20th century, though, many Melancthon farmers consolidated into larger operations or got out of farming altogether. The township of 3,000 inhabitants is one of the least populated in the province. Toronto weekenders in search of their own private idyll snapped up farms in Melancthon and its neighbouring townships. William Thorsell, the former CEO of the ROM, bought a property, as did Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente and former Metro Morning host Andy Barrie. Rosedale came, too: the former CEO of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair Bill Duron and the prominent land-use lawyer and Women’s College Hospital chair Jane Pepino. The musicians Jim Cuddy and Leslie Feist each bought a farmhouse. It was a mostly happy invasion. The weekenders devoted themselves to preserving Melancthon’s hillside views and lanes of majestic maples. They mingled with the old families at the Honeywood Arena, the area’s community centre, for summer barbecues, and bought produce at their neighbours’ farm gates.

Then, in 2006, a moustachioed engineer from Oakville named John Lowndes began quietly buying up farmland. Lowndes said his company, Highland, wanted to build a large potato-growing and -processing operation. His offers of up to $20,000 a hectare, even for unworkable land, were well above market value. His tactics were sometimes aggressive. Farmers claim he’d arrive unannounced with a cheque already written and an offer that would expire in 24 hours; he’d return again and again to badger those who refused to sell. (A Highland spokesperson denies the claims.) In three years, he bought 2,630 hectares for $50 million.

Lowndes initially made good on his potato-farming plans. Highland built new processing facilities and consolidated two of the township’s potato-farming operations to become one of the largest growers in the province. It now pays over 20 per cent of the municipality’s taxes, which gives Highland considerable clout at town council.

One day, Highland began to bulldoze maples and tear down dozens of the Victorian farmhouses on its properties. Town councillors were inundated with questions about Highland’s intentions. Some farmers asked why the company was digging wells in the wrong places for irrigation. As if in answer, rows of archaeologists fanned out across the fields, heads bowed, scouring the earth for arrowheads—a practice that would be required only if Highland were planning to develop the land.

But Lowndes refused to answer specific questions. One farmer drove to Hamilton in an attempt to contact Highland, only to discover that the company address was just a post office box. Highland, it turned out, was registered in Nova Scotia and bankrolled by a powerful Boston-based hedge fund named Baupost Group. In July 2009, Highland held an open house at a Melancthon community centre and revealed its true scheme: it was after the precious reserve of limestone aggregate that lay beneath the farms. If the company had its way, much of Melancthon’s farmland would be replaced by a massive open-pit quarry.

  • Margaret Willis

    This is an excellent, comprehensive summary of events, to date. As a traffic director during Foodstock, I was not aware of some of the details so clearly explained in this article. Thank you. This issue is very close to my heart. As a grass-roots action, this event demonstrated democracy in action. You covered this well.

  • Donna Deneault

    This is a beautiful country story. It could have started with “once upon a time”. I have never lived in Melanchthon Township, but as soon as I learned (about 3 yrs ago) that this beautiful, precious land and fresh water were being looked at for a proposed quarry, it too, became very dear to my heart. I cannot even imagine the devastation to the land and drinking water, not to mention putting wildlife and salmon spawning at risk, and humans at risk (air pollution from toxic dust (blasting) and truck traffic.

    I will forward this article to everyone I know. I will help whenever, however I can, (as are thousands of people in Ontario and abroad)to make sure this proposed quarry idea is shelved.

  • jerry

    I think they can get whatever limestone they need from the bottom of Lake Erie a lot more easily (legality wise) and with less disruption to the ecology – specifically the water table in our essential farmlands – No company should be entitled to disrupt the ecology of such a large critical area for personal gain.

    This is way more serious than suddenly using farmland to erect 400 foot high wind turbines without asking for local residential approval, and that is still a looming disaster of political mismanagement.

    Why are the Canadian rural communities such easy prey to foreign corporate vultures.

  • Donna Baylis

    After reading this article my anger is renewed. I am even more determined to make sure this proposed mega-mistake does not happen in Melancthon. The people of south-western Ontario deserve better than the Lowndes brothers’ deceptions. Did you know John’s brother David was responsible for the proposed quarry in Flamborough that is now being pursued under NAFTA? How much community misery can two men spawn?

  • John F. Varty

    This is a paradigm case of excess and pernicious accumulation. Alas, the celebrity support in response is far from typical. There are countless scenarios –perhaps not as extreme, but thematically related– of a similar nature playing out all across Canada. Urbanites (that’s most of us by far) need to acquaint themselves with issues of this sort wherever and whenever possible.

  • Linda Hutchinson

    This is exactly like what Alliston Ontario is fighting! Many homes (at least one third) have signs on their lawn saying “Stop the Mega Quarry”. Alliston is a small town 15 south of Barrie, but the citizens are very involved in this issue. They also post signs saying “Save our Memorial Arena”. I live nearby and am always impressed with their ability to stand together against this huge issue.

  • A> Dunbar

    Greed!!!….Why can’t the government see the issues…when a dim wit like me can see that , to use viable land, (ie:land that provides food and water) when recycled aggregates are available and non agricultural land is available…I mean it’s not
    ” rocket science” people. The question will become how much tax can the “tax poor ” people of Ontario pay to clean up this mess that will have been created, when companies (ie:Highland) walk away. Of course, only once they get what they want…profits$$$…) Mr. Government man, stopping the quarry in this area, doesn’t mean there are no aggregates available in Ontario, It just means that you are protecting our farmers, our workers, our environment, our bellies, and therefore our already overstressed health care system!!!

  • MM

    As a city dweller with a home in Melancthon Township, I can attest to the incredible purity of the area. It is paradise. The air is clean and fresh and magical. The wildlife is abundant. The seasons are crisp in their transitions. There is nothing sadder than contemplating the loss of the peace and tranquility associated with rural life in Melancthon Township.
    John Lowndes is a power broker with a corrupted value system. He has said he wants to dominate the aggregates industry.
    Is this a reason to allow this project to go forward?
    Shame on any and all of us who would allow such blight to occur.

  • DH

    Two important details that you left out of an otherwise excellent article: 1. this aggregate is clearly not just for Toronto; there are stories of Owen Sound`s harbour being expanded, railway lines being redeveloped to carry `something` to Owen Sound. The belief by many is that this aggregate will be shipped all over the world, certainly to the US but probably farther; this is not aggregate for local use, do not kid yourself; this is certainly far beyond NIMBYism; and 2. WATER, WATER, WATER, this is the key issue for the 21st century and we have an obligation to the 7 generations that follow us to care for our most precious resource; this cynical development will be a disaster from that point of view

  • Nat

    Our large construction companies should figure out a better way to recycle everything they take down before they build up.
    They would rather take down a structure and use it as landfill
    so Toronto has another island we won’t use or have access too
    than recycle it so it’s cost effective. Take down the cement
    and turn it to sand rock and crushed stone . That would solve some of there problems! Sand stone and aggregate on site. No shipping ,no dynamite no contamination. Are they to blame?
    Or are we to stupid to demand this?
    I work in construction .