The landscape surrounding Highway 77, north of Leamington, was largely open field not long ago. Within the last decade – less then seven or so years, really – virtually all of it is now under glass, plastic and steel.
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Yes, greenhouse developments exploded in my home area, bringing hundreds of millions, if not billions of investment dollars to these southern shores. It’s been a great thing in many ways. In other ways, however, it raises serious concerns about the region’s environmental, social and economic health.
As land acquisition and construction continue in quick step, and as local governments continue struggling to effectively safeguard longer-term community interests, the problem could get much worse.
The rapid expansion of Essex County’s greenhouse vegetable and cannabis industries have had many positive impacts, and follow trends established throughout the area’s long affiliation with greenhouse production.
Thousands of jobs and the energizing of adjacent sectors and services, technological and research innovation, demographic diversification – these things and more have been overwhelmingly positive for Leamington, Kingsville, and other nearby municipalities.
Many people and organizations are quick to highlight such benefits, as well as a slew of others – food security and production efficiency, to name additional examples.
It’s all true. But like anything, only highlighting positives can mask the less savoury characteristics associated with the injection and movement of large amounts of cash.
It’s not uncommon for companies to pull a fast one on local governing bodies. Residential properties, for example, are purchased and turned into commercial workshops only to be sold after the municipality identifies they are in violation of zoning bylaws. Such properties conveniently regress to the previously maligned commercial practices, but with supposedly different owners.
Rural roads are regularly destroyed due to continuous construction and production traffic. As things stand, the cost to repair or replace the road falls on local residents, not the company that caused its destruction.
Efforts on the part of the municipality to find solutions are routinely fought through delay tactics and legalese by company lawyers and higher-ups. Locals who rely on the road, and who have to pay for it collectively, be damned.
The light abatement issue, too, has seen delay after delay. Despite what appears to be an effective, mutually supportive compromise between municipalities and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, a small number of greenhouse operators have continued arguing their case with the Normal Farm Practices Protection Board.
For the cannabis sector, it’s been dead silence. Even when the municipality asked for comment in developing its original light pollution policies, not a peep was heard from the area’s cannabis companies.
There are environmental concerns as well. Spent vines and leaves have to be discarded in landfills (at the greenhouse company’s expense) because the presence of plastic in the plant matter rules out more environmentally and economically friendly disposal options. Rotting organic waste can pollute local waterways, and has done so in some cases. Vast volumes of water no longer suitable for crop production also must be dealt with.
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While one hopes this is done responsibly and in compliance with government regulation, do we collect enough data to highlight the intentional or accidental release of effluent? Nutrient loading from farmland is already a well-known problem. It would be a shame to make the problem worse by not being ready for such contingencies.
Crime is an issue, too. This includes the perennially emerging, pseudo-legal cannabis operations scattered throughout the area. What really raises eyebrows, however, are the activities adjacent to otherwise run-of-the-mill greenhouse operations. A case last year involving several locals and an extensive drug trafficking network offers a recent example. Another involved cannabis giant Aphria, and accusations of stealing from investors by short-selling stock.
Granted, there are bad actors in any sector. For us locals, though, the volumes of cash moving around and through this area really makes you think. And sometimes, the gossip about who is doing what turns out to be true.
This brings me to another concern – investor-driven business structures. Much of the growth in my immediate area has come from investor-owned companies, adding acres year-over-year despite higher interest rates, low commodity prices, etc. If legal cannabis producers have not made a dime in profit since legalization, as is literally the case, how can they afford to continue expanding?
If cucumbers are so worthless it makes more economic sense to dump them rather than ship and sell, is continued rapid expansion a good idea? How sustainable is a business if speed of expansion trumps potential flaws in the physical structure?
Some greenhouse growers themselves, including a couple personal contacts, have serious questions about the current state of affairs.
Everything else aside, what perhaps bothers locals most is the sheer volumes of cash at play, and what it’s not used for.
When a greenhouse company purchases farmland for $30,000 or $40,000 per acre, if not more in some cases, and then spends $1.5 million or more per acre to get a new facility up and running, why the devil can’t the company, rather than individual households, pay to resurface the roadway it destroyed? If a company can afford $75 million to construct a new 50-acre facility, is it really necessary to argue against the use of blinds at night?
One’s frustration grows further with the knowledge that greenhouse facilities pay agricultural property tax rates. Should a soybean field, with it’s near total lack of municipal services, really pay the same property tax rate as a greenhouse facility containing shipping, processing, production and other buildings? Is this paying a fair share to the community from which it benefits?
The Leamington and Kingsville area was hit with a rapid and unanticipated level of development. Developers have been able to take advantage of outdated policies to expand at the expense of the wider community.
Some businesses do genuinely care. Others do not. That is the legacy of rapid, near wild-west levels of industrial development.
For all the many benefits of significant growth in the greenhouse sector, what’s happened here is a clear case of too much money, thrown around too fast. The scale and speed of development was not foreseen, and the rules were not designed to deal with it. Communities throughout the province ought to be watching what’s happening in Leamington and Kingsville.
No matter the industry, understanding our case study might be the difference between sustainable or damaging growth once large-scale investments come to town.
– Matt McIntosh is a freelance writer and a regular Farmtario contributor. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm in Essex County.