Could Haliburton County be self-sustaining?
By Vanessa Balintec
As climate change progresses, cities and towns around the world can expect more natural disasters affecting infrastructure, energy, water and food availability, and human health. Rural areas are not immune – dependency on outsourced resources and materials keeps smaller populations vulnerable to disruptions in delivery.
In that context, a self-sufficient, off-the-grid community may prove to be advantageous. Haliburton County has a population large enough to help sustain itself, an area with plenty of natural resources, and a community able to band together. But the question remains: is it possible for the county to become self-sufficient? And if it is, is it feasible?
“It is completely possible, but it takes courage, and takes a lot of cooperation from every level of government,” said Brian Nash, owner of Haliburton Solar and Wind, who has built his home to live entirely off the grid.
Nash said Haliburton’s dams can all be outfitted for water power. “An average dam here in Haliburton would produce close to 300,000 kilowatts of hours a year, and the average home in Ontario uses 8,000 kilowatt hours,” said Nash. “So, you would have the potential to power up several hundred houses.”
But, a barrier is the regulation behind converting to a clean energy, hydro-based model.
“A water project takes about four to seven years to complete,” said Nash. “It’s three years just on the regulation stuff. It takes a long time.”
The long bureaucratic process that comes with establishing new water and energy systems comes at a time when Ontario’s electricity grid isn’t outfitted for best functioning moving forward.
According to Hydro One, much of their transmission system was built in the 1950s, and thus requires frequent investments, repairs, and equipment upgrades to keep every community running and decrease the number of outages. One in four of their transformers have reached their expected service life, nearly 10,000 steel towers are more than 80 years old, and 1,400 km of transmission lines are nearly a century old.
“We don’t necessarily have a resilient grid,” said Nash. “So with climate change, a change of weather patterns, flooding, increased wind, ice storms, all of these things are going to become more commonplace. And all of these things are going to create stress on the electrical infrastructure that is throughout Ontario. We should all expect to have more power outages for long durations.”
“Haliburton can benefit from creating their own energy grid that they serve, that they maintain,” said Nash. “And people would say well how is that different? It’s different because it’s just here. And we don’t rely on this giant line that comes from 700 km away to get us our electricity.”
Off the grid wind and solar could help sustain the county and keep it from being reliant on bigger chains open to disruption, while exploring waste-to-energy options could offer a solution to the growing waste problem that won’t be fixed any time soon – Haliburton’s landfill will no longer be accepting any waste after Jan. 1, 2021 and will become a waste transfer station instead.
But even though energy is a big part of the equation, so is food availability. To become truly self-sufficient, the county would have to find a means to create its own produce and livestock that could feed the local population. A challenge in Haliburton County is the landscape is one of forests, rocks and lakes, not wide swaths of agricultural land.
“If you focus on a piece of ground, and begin to build the soil, then there’s not a piece of ground in this county that has depth of soil that can’t grow food,” said Godfrey Tyler, member of the Haliburton County Farmers’ Association and owner of Waverley Brook Farm. “The dilemma is, so many people are used to being, ‘Oh, you just throw a seed into the ground and away you go.’ Our soils have to be cared for.”
Beyond caring and regenerating soils, farmers would need a massive overhaul in infrastructure, equipment, legislation changes, and resources to be able to sell enough to support the entire county. Educating consumers on what local food is in season and the costs of production is important.
“There are issues with connecting consumers to product, and also I think, and I wrestle with this, producing on a very small scale,” said Angel Taylor, secretary of HCFA, and owner of farm The Nest Egg. “When you do it on a small scale, there’s more cost to the producer. The prices, either you keep your prices comparable to a grocery store or you find, understandably, that people say, ‘Why would I buy your chicken when I can get one for half that price?’”
To the Haliburton County Farmers’ Association, it’s not as straightforward as buying local.
Although land and the work of farmers would be able to sustain the county in theory, in practice, people would have to form their own gardens for the community to support itself.
“Back in the day, everybody had a garden,” said Shane Dykstra, director of HCFA and owner of his own homestead. “It wasn’t just the farmers who were relied on for everybody’s produce. Everybody grew a good chunk of their own stuff.”
Farmers may be more prepared than most for climate change. “At a farming standpoint, you’re aware of more things,” said Amanda Dykstra, treasurer of HCFA. “You’re aware of when the sun comes up, how wet it’s going to be, the amount of precipitation you got this year over last year, how cold your winter was, and when the frost was under your ground. You pay attention to those things – you watch those things, and you adapt to them.”
While there may be ways to prepare the county for trying times, there are still a few problems that need to be addressed.
According to the World Health Organization, between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea, and heat stress. According to the 2016 Census, the average age of the population in Haliburton County is 52 years old. Will the population be able to adapt to any influx of health problems, especially with an older community?
How will people be living in the future? According to the 2016 Census, in 2015, the prevalence of low income in Haliburton County, based on the low-income measure after tax, is 17.2 per cent. If almost one-fifth of the county’s population is considered low-income, how will people be able to prepare for the future when budgets are already tight?
Brian Nash says addressing self-sufficiency as a community will take a societal shift, but is optimistic that it can happen.
“To create a community that is self-reliant requires a collective consciousness that embodies all of that, and that is the biggest challenge,” said Nash. “The challenges are significant. The first thing we have to do is accept them.”