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THE BALANCED LIFE | Understanding the true value of rural Pelham

L ast Thursday was one of those days on the bike that bring an unsolicited smile to your face, delight to your heart, and simply forces one to be thankful for how fortunate we are as cyclists to live in this beautiful, cleansing agricultural area of
Two Great Pyrenees livestock guard dogs keep predators away from free-range hens at a Pelham farm. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Last Thursday was one of those days on the bike that bring an unsolicited smile to your face, delight to your heart, and simply forces one to be thankful for how fortunate we are as cyclists to live in this beautiful, cleansing agricultural area of Pelham and Niagara west.

As I cycled north up Haist Street toward Highway 20 my frame of mind was as expected after exorcising my news FOMO (fear of missing out) by slavishly watching five minutes each of CBC and CNN. As usual, that was approximately four minutes and fifty-nine seconds more than necessary. The old Chrysler van that blew through the four-way stop at Haist Street and Canboro Road, stopping myself and two motorists in our tracks, didn’t help either.

Slightly grumpy but keen to ride, I began to descend Haist Street north, then followed the 2022 Canada Games cycling course east on Metler Road to Hansler Road. A left on Hansler Road dropped me into a familiar, scenic little valley surrounded by horse pastures. The horses paused their grazing, briefly looked my way, then returned to their breakfast. I appreciated the acknowledgement, lackadaisical as it might have been, and felt a tiny mood shift within.

On Roland Road, viewing three massive fields of sunflowers in golden bloom was a surprise, and immediately brought to mind iconic Tour de France promotional videos of the peloton pedalling past French castles and fields of sunflowers.

North on Seventeenth Street brought a change of crops. Soy and corn covered the fields to the west, and as the farms became closer to the warming waters of Lake Ontario vineyards began to appear on the bench.

By Nineteenth Street vineyards dominated both sides of the road, bunches of small dark-purple grapes visible amongst the vines. Fake vinyl hawks wispy enough to float in the wind were tethered to poles throughout the vineyard, and noise cannons shattered the quiet relentlessly—both tools the farmers’ hope will frighten off hungry starlings and robins.

The countryside appeared beautiful, healthy and prosperous, and my mood was upbeat as I wheeled into the village of Jordan. Slipping out the back of Jordan on Twenty-First Street, down into the Twenty Mile Creek valley, it appeared ancient Lake Iroquois’ sandy beach is perfect for market gardening. Melons, squash and sweet corn, with a small acreage of fruit trees surrounded me. The muted sounds of Jordan preparing for another day of tourism were behind me, and the noise from the QEW was still too far north to penetrate the valley. The quiet amid these valley farms is as soothing as a glass of good Niagara wine.

As I rode out of the valley on my bike, Twenty-First Street offered a mix of orchards, massive flower-growing nurseries, and fields of berries and vegetables. A smile covered my face. I was a mere 30 kilometres from home, and couldn’t be more pleasantly surrounded by the green of nature and the intrinsic beauty of productive farms if I were in the olive groves of Spain or the vineyards of Portugal.

Returning south and up the escarpment through Lincoln and West Lincoln, crops changed to soy, corn, and grains. Poultry and cattle operations appeared. You’ve seen similar as you drive down Hwy 24 headed to Hamilton or Toronto, or perhaps you’ve spent a day or two hiking the escarpment overlooking fields and greenhouses or touring our vineyards.

I’d suggest that the breadth and depth of agriculture in Pelham and west Niagara is best understood and appreciated on a bicycle. Immersion in the smells, sounds and vistas of our rural agricultural lands and farms is grounding and invigorating. Traffic is generally light if roads are well-chosen. Thoughts drift to the benefits we reap from living in this environment of plenty, and how farming has changed over the years.

Immersion in the smells, sounds and vistas of our rural agricultural lands and farms is grounding and invigorating

The Niagara Agricultural Profile, published by Niagara Region and based on comparisons between 2011 and 2016 data discovered in Statistics Canada’s Census of Agriculture, offers answers and is surprisingly interesting reading. One quickly becomes aware that the value of agriculture to Niagara and Pelham is more than providing interesting cycling options, and how continual change is affecting those in the industry.

“Farm” is a broad term in the report, including traditional farms, vineyards, agrifloral, poultry, and livestock operations. As I cycle past new wineries and recently expanded vineyards, massive poultry facilities, and huge, recently built galvanized steel grain elevators, I ask myself what kind of enormous capital investment is required to be a farmer in Niagara, and can it be profitable?

For land, buildings, equipment, machinery, livestock, and technology the average capital investment in a Niagara farm is $2.13 million, up an astounding 49 percent from 2011 — and this was well before the recent Covid years when the cost of everything has exploded. In Pelham the capital outlay to enter farming averages $1.94 million, a roughly 47 percent increase in the five years before 2016.

Niagara lost 4690 acres of farmland (2.1 percent of the 2011 total) during the same period, consistent with similar communities in the Golden Horseshoe. Pelham lost 1513 acres or 8.4 percent, a significantly higher proportion. In 2016, Pelham had 161 farms, 7.5 percent fewer than in 2011. Niagara in total had 1827 farms in 2016, 9.3 percent fewer than five years before.

Pelham also has the second-highest ratio of leased, rented or crop-shared land being farmed in Niagara at 49 percent.

Conversely, Gross Farm Receipts (gross revenue of the farming operation only) in Pelham grew to $48.1 million per year between 2011 and 2016. It should be noted that this period includes the time when cannabis operations were beginning. This represented a GFR increase of 18 percent per acre during the five years surveyed, which was slightly higher than Niagara in general at 17.9 percent. During the same period, agricultural costs rose by 9.4 percent in Pelham and 13.4 percent in Niagara, indicating a shift in Pelham to higher-value agricultural products.

Gross Farm Receipts in Niagara were $838.1 million in 2016. When wages and other economic activity related to farming are included, Niagara farming’s contribution to Canada’s Gross Domestic Product in 2016 was $1.41 billion dollars. It can only have grown since then.

The Niagara Agricultural Profile stops short of offering the profitability of various agricultural sectors within Niagara, but the growth and investment trends would indicate that our rural agricultural land will remain viable for years to come. As last Thursday’s ride made crystal clear to me, we are fortunate to live in Pelham and enjoy cycling the quiet roads of this bountiful agricultural region.