October 28, 2009

Signs praise farmers' environmental efforts

As published in The Erin Advocate

Ontario farmers are reaching out to trail users with a series of educational signs, highlighting their efforts to make farms more environment-friendly.

The first of 60 signs throughout the Greenbelt was unveiled in Erin early this month, where the Elora-Cataract Trail crosses Dundas Street, to mark the launch of a public relations campaign called "Agriculture Hits the Trails". It is a project of AGCare, a coalition of crop-related farm groups, and the Ontario Farm Animal Council.

"Farmers are doing a great job of protecting and enhancing the environment," said Jackie Fraser, AGCare Executive Director. “The colourful and informative signs showcase a range of advancements.”

Erin's sign is mainly about Canada-Ontario Environmental Farm Plans, through which farmers get grants to defray the cost of improvements like buffer zones near streams to reduce erosion and fertilizer run-off, fencing to keep farm animals away from streams and better management of pesticides and manure. Wellington County and the City of Guelph fund similar measures through the Wellington Rural Water Quality program.

Farmers have invested about $600 million on such improvements, and reduced tilling has lowered greenhouse gas emissions more than 600 kilotonnes.

"The Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation (FGF) has granted millions of dollars over the past three years to support the many Greenbelt farmers who are taking on environmental projects," said FGF Program Manager Shelley Petrie.

The sign project is supported by trail organizations and conservation authorities, but funded primarily by the FGF. The Foundation provided $180,000, over three years, to produce six different 24" x 18" laminated wood signs on steel posts. A total of 60 are spread across the 1.8 million acres of the Greenbelt, from the Niagara River to Cobourg, including the Escarpment.

The grant does not cover staff time at any of the agencies, but does cover things like design, physical production, installation and professional PR help.

The signs are attractive and well-written, an example of your provincial tax dollars at work. The FGF is independent of the government, but received a one-time $25 million provincial grant in 2005 to help cover start-up and on-going costs.

Grant applications are assessed for relevancy and value. The signs are clearly within the FGF criteria, but at $3,000 each, they are quite expensive.

This year the Town of Erin, through its Trails Subcommittee, and Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) completed a similar project on a smaller scale, with five different educational signs for the Woollen Mills Trail, near downtown Erin village.

The town paid $1,200 each for these colourful, all-metal signs which are 37" x 25".

The project was spearheaded by Amy Doole through WeCARE (West Credit Appreciation, Rehabilitation & Enhancement), with support from the Ontario Trillium Foundation. It benefited from substantial staff time at CVC for research, design, writing and installation, while historical research was provided free by Steve Revell. An additional version of the mill history sign was unveiled last week at the 109 Main Street park.

Other FGF grants in the Erin area include $100,000 for the Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association, to "foster cooperation among tourism operators, to enhance their 'natural' marketing brand, while increasing visitors to the area and lengthening their stay."

The Caledon Countryside Alliance got $30,000 for a community map project, Conservation Halton got $75,000 to build "awareness of the Greenbelt" through signs and other communications materials, while Credit Valley Conservation Foundation got $12,000 for 15 signs promoting the Credit's "clean water and healthy watersheds".

You can get more information at www.greenbelt.ca, www.caringfortheland.com, www.agcare.org and www.ofac.org.

October 21, 2009

Fair entertainment a great blend of old and new

As published in The Erin Advocate

It is always a pleasure to hear a singer you know perform their greatest hits, but it is even better to discover relatively new talent. It was this dynamic that made the Saturday line-up at the Exhibits Hall so entertaining at this year's Erin Fall Fair.

I first saw Murray McLauchlan more than 30 years ago, and have always enjoyed his edgy lyrics and smooth melodies. He looks a good deal wiser at 61, but he still seems to have the spark to stir things up with bluesy songs and stories about his journeys.

"Canada is so huge," he said. "It is one of the most divided places on earth that actually works."

The hall was packed to hear him sing classics like On the Boulevard and Whispering Rain, plus some fine new compositions, accented by his trademark riffs on the harmonica. Naturally, he finished up with Farmer's Song, which seemed to fit in nicely: giving thanks to farmers, at a Thanksgiving agricultural fair, with the roar of the nearby tractor pull as a backdrop.

It was actually the continuation of a theme from the previous act, the Murray Williams Band. This is Williams' third year at the Erin Fair, with a clean, hard-driving country sound that people seem to really enjoy. He has been in the business since the '80s, and made a name for himself with a debut single called Thank a Farmer.

It was all about farmers' struggles when he sang The Farmin' Life is the Life for Me, he had the feet stompin' with his version of the Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, and he did a nice rendition of Charley Pride's Crystal Chandeliers.

When he was singing Kenny Chesney's hit, She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy, the outdoor tractors seemed to chime in right on queue.

Much as I enjoyed McLauchlan and Williams, the highlight of the evening for me was The Gnomes, who played first. It is also their third year at the fair, with Amy Campbell on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, and Hillsburgh native Brad McIsaac on bass and backup vocals.

A few years ago, they won the talent contest at the Erin Fair. Now they live in Beaverton and play around the Orillia area. They have been featured on the CBC Radio 2 show Deep Roots.

The music is mellow and upbeat, leaning toward county in some of their own material, like I Do Believe, and more to folk, blues and soul in the tunes they cover, like (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper, and the Aretha Franklin hit (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

The strong voice and energetic stage presence of Amy Campbell made the show something special. She has a light, evocative tone, with the power to soar and improvise when needed.

It often seems that the most passionate performances come from artists who are still early in their careers, still discovering what they can really do. I wish The Gnomes well, and hope their career becomes a long one.

For more information and streaming audio, myspace seems to be the most popular web source:

For a taste of the garden gnome liberation movement, check out:

October 14, 2009

BIA Chefs' Night a feast for the senses

As published in The Erin Advocate

It was a tough assignment, but someone had to do it. Advocate readers deserve to know just what it was like to tour through five magnificent homes and sample culinary masterpieces from some of Erin's finest chefs. So I made the sacrifice.

The Erin House Tour, a fundraiser organized by the Erin Village Business Improvement Area (BIA) on October 2 and 3, opened with a "progressive dinner". We travelled from home to home with about 60 fellow diners, partaking of a new course at each location.
It was a great column topic, and a fun night out for Jean and I to celebrate our 28th anniversary, so I knocked off two birds with one stone.

The appetizer was served at Someday Farm on Winston Churchill Boulevard, the home of Willa Gauthier. It was a flaky Ricotta Tart, with feta and goat cheese, and a touch of balsamic fig jam, made by Jim Devonshire of Tintagels, at 50 Main Street.

It was a fine social event, with familiar faces from around town, and new people to chat with. Now if I could only connect all those names and faces. It was also quite an undertaking for the hosts, welcoming a horde of dinner guests into their homes.

The next course was at Ashlar House, located on Main Street just past the stop lights at the south end of the village. It is not easily visible from the street, but it is one of Erin's oldest homes, an impressive stone farmhouse from 1850 that was once on the road to Belfountain. Now owned by Tim and Rebecca Sutherns, it can be rented during much of the year for corporate events, retreats, weddings, vacations or even as a film set (www.ashlarhouse.ca).

Jo Fillery of What's Cookin', at 98 Main Street, served up a delicious Autumn Harvest Soup, created by Tamara Honiball. It included locally-grown pumpkin, parsnip and carrot, with Steen's cream (of course), and an ample shot of ginger. Some of the decorating highlights were provided by Decor Solutions and The Village Green.

The pasta course took place at Cattail Farm, on the Eighth Line, the home of Jim and Susan Clift. A superb gnocchi, fried with onions, was served by David Netherton of David's Restaurant at 20 Shamrock Road, and chef Dwayne Presley. It is soon to be added to their catering menu.

Next, we braved the mud of the Tenth Line to reach Hayven Farm, the home of Genie Hayward and Robert Venables. There we were treated to a creative and tasty variation on fish and chips. It was prepared by chef Thorntin Holdsworth, who with his wife Sonia Catino operates Bistro Riviere at 82 Main Street. The fish batter used crushed Miss Vickie's potato chips, while the fries were made from long, curly strings of sweet potato. Fantastic with beer.

The dessert finale was at Little Brook Farm, also on the Tenth Line, the home of John and Jennifer Rogers. Jeff Holtom, of Holtom's Bakery at 78 Main Street, stirred up an addictive mixture of custard, berries, chocolate and liqueur, topped with whipped cream. It went nicely with Joe Lafontaine's Turkey Truffles (in the shape of turkeys, not made with turkey), courtesy of Debora's Chocolates.

The guests were truly impressed as they toured these homes, not just with the decor, but with the architecture. The innovations used to expand older houses and make unique living spaces were a marvel to behold.

The dinner and tour was a great deal at $45 per person. The pace was more relaxed for the house tour only on Saturday, with tickets at $25. This idea looks like a winner for the BIA, so I hope they do it again next year.

This column reminds me of 1988, when I worked as a restaurant critic in Etobicoke. People always envied my job, not realizing that it is not always easy to come up with entertaining ways to describe restaurant food, decor and service. The thrill can wear off if you do it every week, even with an expense account. Speaking of which, I wonder if I can get one of those at The Advocate. [Editor's note: Forget about it.]

October 07, 2009

Farmland Trust donation blocks new development

As published in The Erin Advocate

When Deidre Wright gave up the right to sell her land to a developer, she did not view it as a sacrifice, but rather an opportunity to help stop the spread of subdivisions and quarries into Ontario's dwindling supply of good farmland.

"The land is being gobbled up by housing and gravel pits," said Wright, who has owned Belain Farm, on Shaws Creek Road near Belfountain, since 1965. "The land is precious. We should keep it rural."

She recently completed a deal with the Ontario Farmland Trust (OFT), a not-for-profit organization that promotes farmland preservation. She donated to them a "conservation easement" on her 97-acre property – a legal stipulation that prohibits a change in the land use. This is binding on her and all future owners of the property.

Various land trust groups have built up a network of nature reserves that now protect more than 60,000 acres across Ontario, primarily for natural areas such as forest and wetlands. Wright's property is mainly farmland, making it the first land securement for the OFT.

"Ontario is indebted to individuals like Deirdre Wright, whose concern for what the landscape will look like in the future has translated into action," said OFT Executive Director Bruce Mackenzie, who is working on three similar easements in or adjacent to the Greenbelt.

"Mrs. Wright's foresight and generosity will ensure that farmland and greenspace are protected in perpetuity – good news for agriculture and the environment."

Credit Valley Conservation (CVC) is a partner in this project and will monitor the property. With a donated easement, the owner keeps the land and is free to sell it or bequeath it, though subsequent owners cannot change the land use.

The land gets two market value appraisals, one with the easement, and one without it. The difference between these amounts is the dollar value of the easement, which can be quite high if the land has development potential. When the easement is donated to the land trust, the land owner gets an income tax receipt for the value of the easement.

For the Belain Farm donation, the costs for legal work, surveying and appraising were covered using a portion of a $75,000 grant from the Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, a charitable group supported by the Ontario government.

Anyone with farmland can potentially get involved, even if there are no special natural features on their land. It is important to discuss the matter with children or others who may inherit the land. In some cases there may be capital gains tax to deal with, so landowners must find out all the details before they proceed.

Land trusts can also accept outright donations of land, as well as buy land and lease it to farmers. Land deals involving direct acquisition by trusts often occur when a landowner retires from farming: part of the farm may be sold for development, leaving the owner able to donate the remainder, or sell it at a lower price.

Municipal official plans already control development, and most of Erin is within Ontario's Greenbelt zone, as is Wright's property in Caledon. The conservation easement goes above and beyond both of those.

"It is an added level of protection," said Mackenzie, noting that the easement would remain in force even if future municipal or provincial governments were eager to encourage development of an area. "It is empowering for the landowner."

Imagine that – something substantial a landowner can do, which will have an impact long after they have died, standing up to commercial pressures and the whims of politicians. If many local farmers donated easements, it could make a huge difference.
"I'm trying to persuade my neighbours to do it," said Wright.

Ontario contains just over half of Canada's optimal class one farmland, but significant portions of it have been lost to urban sprawl. The Greenbelt is an attempt to control that sprawl, in a 1.8 million-acre band that wraps around Toronto, from the Niagara River to Cobourg. It includes the Niagara Escarpment, hundreds of towns and some 7,100 farms.

For more information, go to: www.ontariofarmlandtrust.ca and www.greenbelt.ca