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Environmentalists, farmers renew push to shelve Pickering airport, save prime farmland

The future of the proposed airport in Pickering has been in limbo for decades, and environmental groups and some farmers say that’s led to a missed opportunity to expand southern Ontario’s fruit and vegetable sector on prime farmland.

Land was purchased by federal government in 1972 to build airport

Advocates for farmland in Pickering, part of a group called Land over Landings, want the remaining land preserved for agriculture instead of a proposed airport. (Jonathan Castell)

Environmental organizations and farmers are renewing calls to protect land in Pickering slated for an airport, saying Ontario is missing out on what could be a secure source of local produce.

The federal project has been in limbo for decades and the group says that's led to a missed opportunity to expand southern Ontario's fruit and vegetable production on prime farmland.

The land, 18,600 acres, was acquired by the Liberal government of then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 1972 for the construction of an airport.

Nearly half a century later, it has yet to be built.

The federal government now leases 6,500 acres to farmers, many of whom grow cash crops like corn, soybeans and wheat. There are 172 active agricultural leases on the land.

Grahame Taylor stands on the three acres of land he leases from Transport Canada. He says it's difficult to invest in the land when the future of the airport is uncertain. (Supplied/Grahame Taylor)

Grahame Taylor grows a wheat cover crop — not to be harvested, but to benefit the soil — on the three acres of land he leases.

He would like to invest more time and money and expand so he can grow vegetables, but says it's risky with the one-year termination clause on his 10-year lease with Transport Canada. 

"You're kind of afraid to invest in it because you don't know what the next government decision is going to be," he said.

Taylor would like a 20-year lease, which is in line with what The Greenbelt Foundation has been calling for. 

A March report by the organization, which is dedicated to ensuring Ontario's Greenbelt remains protected, says the Pickering Lands could be part of an expansion of fruit and vegetable production.

It says Ottawa should consider leasing the land for a period of 20 to 30 years, noting fruit trees need a lease of at least 30 years.

Taylor says he's lucky to have the three acres he does, because it's "next to impossible" for small farmers to secure land. 

While he waits in limbo, he says it's better than the alternative.

"I'd rather have no answer than it be given to an airport."

2 different visions  

The vice-chair of Land Over Landings, a non-profit created to fight the construction of an airport, says more jobs would be generated if the land was used for more small-scale farmers who could produce a variety of crops.

"Everyone really wants to eat local food and this is prime Class 1 farmland that could be used to feed the people of the GTA and Ontario," Susan Reesor said.

Reesor, who is also Taylor's aunt, says now is a good time to rethink the airport, given the sharp decline in air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The vice-chair of Land over Landings, Susan Reesor, says the land should be used to grow local food for the GTA. (Supplied/Susan Reesor)

The group's vision for the land includes long-term leases, orchards, small businesses, agri-tourism, and no airport.

A 2018 report commissioned by Land Over Landings says using a few thousand acres in that way could create 2,100 jobs and almost $240 million annually.

"If they were to allow cideries, wineries, bistros, those kinds of businesses that could evolve on the lands over time, we'd be much more employment intense," Reesor said.

Durham Region Chair John Henry has been pushing for the construction of the airport and says it would create more than 10,000 jobs, which he says are much needed after the General Motors plant in Oshawa closed

Region of Durham Chair John Henry supports an airport in Pickering and says it could create more than 10,000 jobs. (Supplied/Region of Durham)

He also says the land could be used for both an airport and agriculture with vertical farming.

"We have some tremendous opportunities to utilize the talent that's out there and the technology that's around the world to feed the residents of Durham and Ontario by doing things differently," he said.

"Grow food, move goods, support the aerospace industry. We can do that all together on that parcel of land."

No clear answer on airport's future

Transport Canada won't specify when and if an airport would be built, but says the decision on the future of the land will be made based on "a sound business case, updated data on aviation demand and capacity, and stakeholder engagement."

In an emailed statement, spokesperson Alexandre Desjardins says Transport Canada signed 10-year leases in 2018 in response to farmers wanting more stability.

"This updated lease model has enabled agricultural lease holders with the stability to make sound business decisions by providing longer tenures and fixed rental rates," Desjardins said. 

A satellite image of the Pickering Lands shows the site where a proposed Pickering airport would be built. (Google Earth)

A KPMG report, commissioned by Transport Canada in 2016 and made public in March, found there will be no need for an additional airport in southern Ontario before 2036.

A previous study released by the government in 2011 concluded an airport would be needed in the region between 2027 and 2037.

About the Author

Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto where she covers a wide range of stories. She has a particular interest in crime, legal and justice issues and human interest stories. She previously reported on national and international news. Angelina got her start in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at angelina.king@cbc.ca or @angelinaaking

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