Organic farm plan plowed under

Alisha Morrissey
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Mayor doesn't want more development in Windsor Lake watershed area

The otherwise pristine view of tree-lined Windsor Lake is marred up by litter-filled culverts, traffic zooming along the highway and heavy machinery parked near a construction company headquarters.

People can't fish the lake, or swim in it. No one can build new houses next to the hundred or so that already exist within the imaginary line of the watershed, nearly all of which have septic tanks in their yards.

Mark Wilson has asked for time to prove to the city that an organic farm would be a safe an ideal use. Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

The otherwise pristine view of tree-lined Windsor Lake is marred up by litter-filled culverts, traffic zooming along the highway and heavy machinery parked near a construction company headquarters.

People can't fish the lake, or swim in it. No one can build new houses next to the hundred or so that already exist within the imaginary line of the watershed, nearly all of which have septic tanks in their yards.

Windsor Lake and the lands around it are supposed to be protected to help keep the quality of St. John's drinking water high.

Which is why Mark Wilson says he has applied to turn a former farm property within the watershed into one of the province's few organic farms. The province's agrifoods division owns the land and Wilson would like to lease and farm it under organic regulations - a use for the land that, he says, would be as safe or safer than what's already going on in the watershed.

"This could be a really interesting centre for producing food safely," Wilson says of the Portugal Cove-St. Philip's area where there are several other farms, including at least one organic farm.

But Wilson says the City of St. John's and its mayor are standing in his way.

Mayor Dennis O'Keefe admits that he doesn't know much about organic farming, but says even if he did, it wouldn't matter.

He doesn't want any development in the watershed.

City staff recommended that the farm's proposal be rejected, but councillors asked that the decision be deferred until more information could be compiled.

Organic farming focuses on rotating crops, naturally nurturing nutrients into the land and pesticide-free crop production, says Wilson, who grew up farming and is the only inspector in the province capable of certifying a farm organic.

Driving to the proposed site on a grey afternoon, the most obvious danger to the water quality is posed by culverts on either side of the road filled with disposable coffee cups, paper and plastic bags and other trash.

Wilson pulls up maps of the oval-shaped line around the lake on a laptop screen in the backseat, while outside the car window trees with plastic bags wrapped around their branches line the banks of the massive lake.

Wilson mentions a car accident that happened several years back that sent the driver into the lake along with the car - filled with toxic fluids including antifreeze, gas and oil.

"My main concern would be a truck carrying pesticides, or oil and gas going in (the lake)," Wilson says, pointing to a side road that leads to a gravel quarry.

"What they really don't get is the risk of this road versus the risk of that (farm)."

Standing on the former Gladney's property, which was once an operational dairy farm with 150 head of cattle, Wilson points to heavy equipment in the driveway across the street. Directly behind him are hunks of twisted, rusting metal in a garage yard. Beyond that is Old Broadcove Road and in the distance is Windsor Lake.

Then he points to the forest, which takes up most of the 30-acre farm. That makes it an ideal site for farming, Wilson said.

"In an organic farm situation, you don't want to lose nutrients (out of the soil)," he says, adding that even if there was excess nitrogen or nutrients on the farm, the trees would act as a natural sponge, preventing it from making it to the water.

A grass buffer could be put in between the farm and trees, he says, adding even more roots to the ground to suck excess nutrients out of the soil.

"This is not foreign to me," he says. " This is so backwards that it's funny. I can't blame those guys for wanting to protect the water ... but if I can't get this land I can't afford to farm."

But the mayor says he doesn't care how safe the farm is compared to existing operations in the area. O'Keefe says he doesn't even care that the site used to be a farm.

"We have one chance at good quality water that we have and in sufficient volumes to provide the city and the region for generations to come, and we have to protect that beyond the call of duty," he says. "... I think organic farming is a marvelous idea, and in this case there may and there should be other locations at which this could happen. Why locate it in the watershed? Why?"

He says too many environmental mistakes were made in the past and we're still paying for them.

O'Keefe says he'd prefer not to have so many homes, a highway and several commercial ventures within the watershed.

"But they've been there historically and when we get the opportunity to buy them out, we will do that," the mayor says. "... I'm simply not willing to gamble on the future of good drinking water."

amorrissey@thetelegram.com

Geographic location: St. John's, Portugal Cove, Old Broadcove Road

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Recent comments

  • Eli
    July 02, 2010 - 13:34

    How dare Wilson question the brillaince of City Hall? Mile One anyone?

  • Anon
    July 02, 2010 - 13:31

    Dennis Okeefe should have wikipediaed organic farming first. He would have quickly realised how awesome this idea is.

    In the meantime, if the sprung greenhouse is still sittin around gettin dust it could be useful.

  • Eli
    July 01, 2010 - 20:23

    How dare Wilson question the brillaince of City Hall? Mile One anyone?

  • Anon
    July 01, 2010 - 20:20

    Dennis Okeefe should have wikipediaed organic farming first. He would have quickly realised how awesome this idea is.

    In the meantime, if the sprung greenhouse is still sittin around gettin dust it could be useful.