Tree Bylaws and Radicalized Environmentalism: Farmers Are Listening

Forest 510   As I’ve grown older, I try to listen more.  In fact, I try to especially listen more to younger people, because even though I’ve grown old and experienced, sometimes there is a tendency to negate what other people are telling you.  Listening is one of the most difficult things I do.  However, I constantly make a deliberate attempt to hear and consider everything that is said to me.  If I don’t get it, I simply try harder.

Recently there was a bit of a dustup in my home community of Chatham Kent Ontario, when my listening skills were surely challenged.  It was over the consideration of a tree bylaw.  Chatham Kent is the least forest covered county in Ontario followed by Essex county its neighbor to the west.  It is that way because it is in the most southern part of Ontario and has the most intense agriculture in Canada.  We all know in the southwest it is different than anywhere else.  A large reason for that is our track record as an agricultural powerhouse and the favorable climate, which shines down on us every year.

So when an arbitrary decision to impose a tree bylaw upon the agricultural community and Chatham Kent Council recently, it was quite a big shock to farmers.  For generations farmers have cleared the land to grow crops to generate an income to feed their families.  It just so happens that in Chatham Kent, the soils were like no other and generations of families through their own sweat equity cleared the land to make a living and a vibrant agricultural economy.  Things have changed now, land assessment is through the roof and farmers continue on that journey to clear the land, create economic activity and feed their families.  It is long been part of farming culture in this area.

Chatham Kent is a very unique place politically speaking within Ontario.  In the late 1990s all the small rural municipalities were brought together under one umbrella with a former city of Chatham and town of Wallaceburg to form the new municipality of Chatham Kent.  Needless to say, through the years this has brought strange bedfellows of urban city politicians together with rural politicians.  The resulting political reality is always being one of trade-off between rural interests and what many might think urban ignorance and vice versa.  There’s been a lot of listening on both sides and for the most part, there’s been great attempts at communicating with each other.

However, sometimes farming culture is assaulted without regard for traditions of economic reality.  That was certainly the case in the Chatham Kent Ontario tree bylaw debate, when agricultural economic reality was being castigated as evil farmers clear cutting trees.  In fact, I found some of the accusations hard to fathom.  In my mind you can be an extremely good farmer and clear the land too.  Being accused of being a pariah and evil or clearing the land and cutting down trees was bizarre to me at best.

Trees are weeds in farm fields.  Myself, I have cleared about 200 acres of bush in my career.  Over that time, I have tiled the land and burnt lots and lots of brush.  I still have land to clear and the contract has already been written.  With land assessments going sky high in southwestern Ontario, every dollar is appreciated.  Its a long story.

Not everybody feels this way and surely not even a lot of people on farms.  For instance, in Chatham Kent Ontario, tree cover has actually increased over the last few years.  Lots of farmers actually plant trees in an organized fashion, which makes real sense.  However, it would seem radicalized, fringe elements in the environmental movement have little appreciation for farmer tree planting.  In many ways, they are not interested in creating a policy, but more in pursuing a radicalized process, which effectively is opposite to the long-standing farming culture of clearing land.  Tying themselves to trees with chains is the stuff of radical environmentalists from the 1960s West Coast.  A little bit of listening to each other would go a long way in this bizarre, emotional political environment.

At the end of the day last week, Chatham Kent Council defeated the motion to impose a six-month moratorium on clearing the land and cutting down trees.  Voting was a solid rural urban split.  There was a collective sigh from the farming community.  Of course, farmers know that it’s not over but they surely hope that maybe the listening will start.  We are all Canadian here, and that means we will all obey the law whatever it is.  Yes, everybody has an opinion.  As farmers, where ever you are, listening to that person/consumer on the other side of the divide has never been so important.