An Ontario farmer says he fears he could lose his family’s farm if the Doug Ford government goes forward with a proposal to build Highway 413, which would cut through about a quarter of his land.

Dean Orr works a farm in King City with his parents, as well as a full-time farmhand, growing grains and tapping maple syrup. About 500 acres of their rented land, however, is directly in the path of the proposed highway in the north end of Vaughan.

“(It) might not sound like a huge amount to a lot of people. It’s only 25 per cent, but a lot of the margins for grain growing are really slim,” he told CTV News Toronto.

“It would be enough of a hit where we'd seriously have to reconsider the business model.”

Orr is one of the farmers featured in a new campaign being launched by the David Suzuki Foundation. The foundation has actively been fighting the development of Highway 413 since it was first proposed, organizing petitions and advertising blitzes in an effort to sway public opinion.

In the unreleased ads, shared exclusively with CTV News Toronto, farmers and advocates argue the money earmarked for the highway could instead be used to preserve farmland, adopt climate change strategies, and improve rail and public transportation.

“The research we've looked at suggests that thousands of acres of prime Ontario farmland will be paved by this highway,” Gideon Forman, transportation policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation, said.

“Not surprisingly, it will harm their business. It will harm their ability to grow food for us.”

According to Orr, who sells his produce locally, the impact of Highway 413 is about more than just the 500 acres of land he may lose. When the government provides estimates on affected acreage, it does not account for additional environmental or operational impacts, he claimed.

“When they go through a property, they're bisecting it,” he said. “Maybe it's chunked up in such a way that it's too small, you can't fit the equipment in."

Given available information and other development options on the table, Orr feels “there’s absolutely no good reason for Highway 413 to go forward."

At the time of publication, Orr confirmed to CTV News Toronto that he has not heard from government officials about the proposed development on his land.

‘We will lose our ability to feed ourselves’

The six-lane, 52-kilometre highway has been a major campaign promise of Premier Doug Ford’s since he was first elected in 2018.

The proposed route would travel from Halton to York Region, connecting highways 401, 407, and 410. The province expects the project to save commuters about 30 minutes in driving time when complete, reducing gridlock across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.

Highway 413

However, advocates have argued the government is downplaying the environmental impact the new 400 series highway would have.

A report published in October 2022 by Canadian environmental advocacy group Environment Defence identified at least 29 “federally identified species at risk” that will be impacted by the highway. The report also says the proposed highway would cross about 132 streams and rivers, and result in the loss of about 400 acres of “significant natural areas and/or Greenbelt land.”

Stephen Rice has been a beekeeper in Ontario for over 30 years, and the farm where he learned the craft is located in Caledon about a kilometre from the area where the highway will be built.

“I still work there. I still have bees there. I do my honey processing there,” he told CTV News Toronto. "I certainly have to be concerned not only for my own immediate economic future, but for the environmental future of my children and my grandchildren."

Ontario Farmland Trust, a not-for-profit organization that aims to protect Ontario farmland and food production landscapes, echoed this sentiment in a deposition to the government. They argued the proposed highway “poses a major threat to farmland in the Greater Golden Horseshoe and thus the viability of the region’s agri-food sector.”

Dean Orr

If reducing gridlock is the government’s main concern, the organization suggested it look into alternative investments in public transportation. Building a new highway, they argued, will only encourage more people to use their cars.

According to NDP Agriculture Critic John Vanthof, the Ford government has yet to fully appreciate the overall toll the development of the highway could take on the province.

"I really don't think that the government has fully appreciated the overall cost to society will be by eliminating not just the 2,000 acres required for construction, but over time the tens of thousands of acres or more that will be isolated by its construction," he said. "We are losing 320 acres a day currently of farmland and if that if that continues, we will eventually lose our ability to feed ourselves.”

For farmers looking to cash in and retire by selling their land, Vanthof acknowledges that Highway 413 could provide them the opportunity to do so.

But for those trying to sustain their businesses, Vanthof argues it could have significant consequences—especially for families like Orr’s who rent land and have no stake in its sale.

Highway remains key infrastructure pledge by Ford government

Despite the criticism, the Ford government has held steadfast onto the project, naming it a key infrastructure investment in news releases, budgets, and government documents–while releasing few details about the endeavor other than the proposed route.

The province is currently in the process of asking the courts to stop the federal government from performing an environmental impact assessment on the project.

The Minister of Transportation, when asked about whether the government consulted with farmers on Highway 413, pointed to the Progressive Conservative’s 2022 re-election as proof of support the government has for the development.

“The 413 was the key and core message of that campaign.”

He did not say whether the government has actively consulted with farmers impacted by the highway, noting instead that continuous discussions and collaborations are happening with the community.

The government has not said how much this highway will cost or provided a possible date of completion.

In November 2022, an auditor general report suggested the pricetag could be more than $4 billion.

The Ontario Liberals have previously said the cost could be closer to $10 billion, while the David Suzuki Foundation is using an $8-billion figure in their advertising.