By Julie Harris
The Central Experimental Farm (CEF) is unique; it consists of almost 1,000 acres of land that has been methodically documented for decades. Research scientists know everything about its topography, soil composition, carrying capacity, weather and other characteristics. On top of that, the CEF is sited in the middle of Ottawa, where its world-class research teams can work in close collaboration with two universities and other expert research departments. Despite the importance of the CEF and its work, managers with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) have been forced to fend-off regular land grabs over the years from local politicians, community groups and developers. They have repeatedly stressed to an urban population that the Central Experimental Farm's seemingly ‘empty fields’ are, in fact, open-air laboratories where important agricultural research continues to be conducted.
Prior to this week’s announcement of the give-away of 60 acres of prime agricultural research land to the Civic Campus of the Ottawa Hospital, the last serious threat to the future of the CEF came in the early 2000s when a group of determined speculators attempted to bring private interests into the site through a combination of residential development and a botanical garden. An equally determined group of CEF supporters (not just heritage advocates) came to its defense, pointing out that the Central Experimental Farm was among the world’s oldest agricultural research facilities still occupying its original site, and that it had unique status as a place of research, employment, and knowledge, in addition to status as a National Historic Site. This prompted the Deputy Minister at the time to call for the preparation of a Management Plan to address the CEF's departmental functions, museum vocation and heritage status.
In 2004 the Minister of AAFC and the Deputy Minister unveiled the Central Experimental Farm National Historic Site Management Plan, of which I was a co-author. The plan was based on extensive research and analysis, including input from research scientists across Canada who understand how much land is required to sustain agricultural research. The plan also took into account the department’s own analysis concerning the difficulty, if not the complete improbability, of finding similar land suitable for such agricultural research.
The Management Plan recognizes the intense pressures faced by the Central Experimental Farm, including attempts to take land away for local development purposes. The plan's vision is “To sustain a cultural landscape of national historic significance through a reinvigorated and ongoing agricultural research program.” The Plan's key objectives are:
- To strengthen the research identity of the Farm as the most important path of continuity between its past, present and future
- To develop appropriate governance models that recognize this identity and enhance its relationship to the site
- To provide clear rules of engagement for other agencies and partners
- To ensure the commemorative and ecological integrity of the cultural landscape and its cultural and natural resources
- To interpret and present the site to the public as a scientific landscape of national significance
- To develop appropriate patterns of access, circulation, and open space
- To establish clear and sustainable relationships with the adjacent urban context
A major concern of the Plan is the retention of the fields and land required to serve the CEF's agricultural research uses, and the importance of making the public aware of their responsibilities as guests of the Central Experimental Farm.
This week, in a departure from the CEF Management Plan a politician announced that 60 acres of federal land - land assembled and managed for the benefit of all Canadians - will be given to a local Ottawa institution. Unlike agricultural research facilities, hospitals and medical research facilities can be built in a variety of locations, and once built they inevitably expand. Future requests for adjacent land on the CEF site are likely.
Alternatives exist, and those alternatives should be fully explored and presented to Canadians before resorting to the piecemeal distribution of our National Historic Sites.
Julie Harris is a Historian and Heritage Consultant at Contentworks Inc. in Ottawa
Photo: Central Experimental Farm Promotional Image, 1890 [Source: AAFC, neg. 445099]