As I look out the window into the vineyards, I am reflecting on information I learned that concerned me.
The Niagara Region has been handed a report created by MHBC Planning, Urban Design & Landscape Architecture. In the readings, there are recommendations for trimming down policies that protect the Niagara Escarpment from winery development. These policies are found within the Niagara Escarpment Plan (NEP), which stands to protect the fragility and biodiversity of this UNESCO listed feature.
These policy changes could involve wineries being able to develop larger retail buildings, parking spaces, and production areas along Niagara Escarpment properties.
With 101 wineries in the Niagara appellation, 29 of them sit within a zone regulated by the NEP.
This is where we play the tricky empathy game.
If you’re a smaller but booming winery along the Niagara Escarpment looking to expand your production capabilities, then you may currently find yourself in a bind. That urge to grow seems like an inevitable stage for any agricultural business, but what happens when the breaching point arrives and policy roadblocks are keeping you still?
Is this the “cost” of doing winery business in a geographically sensitive area? Interestingly, let’s consider how we use the language in this scenario. Is it a cost, or buyer beware? Are the policies there to protect, or are they there to inhibit? Depending on which word you stand by, that is the lens through which you look at this scenario.
In this case, I don’t personally see the need for changes and peel-backs on policies within the NEP. These policies shouldn’t be seen as there to protect or inhibit, but rather, to balance and regulate.
This balance is already off in Niagara. Just look at a satellite image of the region, and you can identify the Niagara Escarpment as a thin strip of green running west to east along Lake Ontario.
When I’m out hiking on the Bruce Trail, I often ask hikers to pause and look in both directions up and down the path. As a group, we become engulfed by the impression that these woods are never-ending, as you can’t see the end of the tree-line in either direction. The sad trick is that, in reality, we’re just looking “down the hall.” If you were to face up or down the escarpment instead of along it, you would see that you are just standing within a ribbon of green.
I have seen how the Niagara Escarpment and its forests work for our vineyards as unpaid staff.
Every year, Lake Ontario heats up over the course of summer. When Canadians start throwing sweaters and toques on again in fall, Lake Ontario remains warm from the summer heat. Winds push that lovely warm air across the lowlands and up the Niagara Escarpment like a bike ramp. This slightly warmer air then becomes trapped on this shelf (hence the term “bench” for wine-growing areas nestled along the escarpment), circulating around and keeping the ambient temperature just a smidgeon warmer, sometimes by only a degree or two. That doesn’t sound like much, but that means an extra-long growing season for our farmers, and richer flavours into the late harvest.
I have seen other examples where the escarpment forests work in beautiful harmony with vineyards. I know of one winery on the Twenty Mile Bench where its primary vineyard is surrounded by mature forest on the escarpment. You can see examples where the tree roots, wiry and ripped like a mechanic’s forearms, are holding back rocks and soil from eroding away down the slopes. That means the precious minerals and nutrients that make the wines so tasty are being kept on the property, and as a bonus, the property itself isn’t being chiselled away.
This is an example of how the Niagara Escarpment and its policies are already working by letting nature do its work.
I’ve also seen this work partnership go sour, when grape vines infiltrate the Carolinian forest and strangle our native tree species. Bird bangers, farm equipment, and various sprays all have some sort of detrimental environmental impact, but no business has no impact. I just don’t think our forests need more of that exposure than there already is. There comes a time to hit the brakes and think about what’s at stake.
To step back out of the woods for a moment, I can understand how policies can be more annoying than the mosquitoes on the trails. I also believe that in other conversations, policies absolutely should be changed or reconsidered from time to time. Alas, sometimes, we still need to remember what’s most important per context, and how policies protect what is ultimately the most precious.
I feel this potential policy shift within the NEP would be a slippery slope. My fear is this would turn into a give-an-inch-take-a-mile syndrome, and the ultimate loser would be the natural heritage of the Niagara Escarpment, taking a hit here, a dent there, and another policy change.