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.
Melancthon’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.