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Auto industry celebrates while Canadian ag suffers

Auto industry celebrates while Canadian ag suffers

News of a new Volkswagen manufacturing plant in St. Thomas, sparks fear of more Ontario farmland going by the wayside to accommodate it.

By Andrew Joseph,

The news that automobile icon Volkswagen was going to construct its first-ever overseas battery manufacturing facility in St. Thomas, brought with it platitudes from the Canadian automobile industry—but the opposite from the Canadian ag sector.

On March 13, 2023, Volkswagen—Europe’s largest automaker—announced that its subsidiary PowerCo will establish an electric vehicle (EV) battery manufacturing facility in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada.

"This historic investment is a testament to Canada’s strong and growing battery ecosystem and Ontario’s competitive business environment. With a highly skilled workforce, clean energy, an abundance of critical minerals, access to markets, and a flourishing automotive and battery sector, we are an attractive investment destination with everything companies need to grow. In addition, Canada and Ontario offer stability and predictability to their business partners,” said the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, and the Honourable Vic Fedeli, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade in a jointly issued statement.

“This investment is another significant step forward as we build a clean transportation sector to meet global and North American demand for zero-emission vehicles.”

While economic pundits for the manufacturing sector praised the Volkswagen initiative that will support clean technology and create well-paying jobs and economic growth within the St. Thomas area, the Canadian ag industry saw this action as yet another slap in the face, as the province loses even more viable farmland.

In this instance, some 1,500 acres of farmland in the area (see the highlighted area in the image above) were purchased for the auto manufacturer’s interests.

Although hearsay, it is rumoured that the farmland was purchased for $60,000 up to $100,000 per acre.

It is said that most of this swathe of freshly-purchased farmland had previously been bought up by a few local farm families.  

According to Ontario Farmland Trust, over the past 35 years, Ontario alone has lost 18 percent of its farmland—that’s 2.8 million acres—to non-agricultural usage.

While the term “non-agricultural usage” usually refers to urban sprawl, it also refers to such industries as aggregate mining, and now per the PowerCo facility a loss to further green technology.

Now that’s irony.

Along with losing farmland to grow crops, the proposed battery manufacturing facility will also result in a loss of ecosystem habitat. Our Ontario farmlands are utilized for food and shelter by a plethora of species.

We can only assume an environmental study was undertaken, however, but it still makes the loss of the ecosystems within the St. Thomas farmland that much more tragic.

We would be remiss if we did not recognize that the province of Ontario’s agri-food sector is the largest economic sector in the province, employing over 860,000 people (as of 2021 data).

While we can applaud the auto industry’s win here in St. Thomas, we should be mindful of what we lost to get it.

According to Statistics Canada, 2021, Ontario is losing 319 acres of farmland every day. We can now factor in an additional 1,500 acres into our 2023 farmland loss.

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