Since 2005, the province’s beef farmers have shrunk their operations nearly 25 per cent, losing more than 100,000 cattle to fickle global markets and rapidly rising land costs in southern Ontario. For years, farmers have lobbied for a fix, and last week the Liberals announced one: they’ll release Crown land to northern farmers, allowing them to expand their properties to 2,000 acres.
But don’t expect a Wild West land rush anytime soon: so far, the government has simply agreed to the idea in principle and put the bureaucratic wheels in motion. Matt Bowman, president of Beef Farmers of Ontario, said he’s optimistic but isn’t expecting land sales to start tomorrow.
“The process is moving, the wheels are turning,” said Bowman, who owns a farm in Thornloe, north of New Liskeard. “We hadn’t seen a lot of that so far.”
The appeal of northern farmland is a mix of push and pull: farmland in southern Ontario is increasingly expensive, locking out a generation of new farmers who can’t afford it. Meanwhile, farmland in the north is increasingly useful thanks to climate change, with warmer springs and falls stretching out the growing.
And there’s a lot of land available: the two clay belts in northeast Ontario contain tens of millions of acres of arable farmland. Both are the remnants of ice age lakes, but the Little Clay Belt around Temiskaming Shores is farther south and has a warmer growing season. The Great Clay Belt is farther north, around Hearst, Kapuskasing, and Cochrane, and extending east into Quebec. Though the weather is colder, it’s not too cold for cattle farms.
The problem, until now, has been that the Crown holds that land, keeping it off-limits to farmers. Of the 16 million acres on Ontario’s side of the Great Clay Belt, only a small fraction is in private hands. It’s not all pristine old-growth forest; instead, many plots are themselves farms that were settled in the early 20th century and failed, with the title reverting to the province.
Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs Jeff Leal said the government is looking for farmers whose existing lands are next to Crown parcels that could be released to supplement the farmers’ existing property, and isn’t looking at carving out whole new farms in the north.
“We’ve identified a number of parcels that, when joined with private land, would produce about the 2,000 acres that are needed,” Leal told TVO.org Thursday. “We’re using that as the foundation of our work.”
That magic number comes from the beef farmers themselves, who say that’s the acreage required to run an economically viable northern farm. At that size, a farmer can grow feed for 200 cattle — enough to support a bovine family of four.
The government hasn’t always supported the sale of Crown land to northern farmers: in 2014, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s mandate letter to Leal seemed to nearly rule it out, stating that the minister “should prioritize opportunities on private land.”
Leal said the government’s thinking hasn’t really changed; it’s just faster for the Queen’s Park to facilitate private-land transactions. To sell Crown land, the government has to consult the public first — a time-consuming process.
“The disposal of Crown lands in northern Ontario is an incredibly sensitive topic, and we need to respect our obligations to the Indigenous community and the Métis community,” Leal said. “We want to make sure that, working with [Minister of Northern Resources and Forestry Kathryn] McGarry, that we can join those parcels of land to private lands and get the critical mass we need.”
Long-term, the idea is to add enough cattle to the northeast — Beef Farmers of Ontario wants to increase the province-wide population by 100,000 — that the farmers would attract other services they rely on, such as vets, machinery dealers, and eventually slaughterhouses.
“It’s been a long time coming; we’ve been working for the last number of years now towards this,” said André Robichaud, a former economic development officer for the town of Kapuskasing. “The region is hoping to use this as a spearhead to develop the ag sector more broadly.”
Neither Bowman nor Robichaud could estimate how many farms and cattle would be needed to reach that critical mass. The aim, for now, is simply to get the herd growing and keep it growing. But land won’t be enough on its own. Robichaud said farmers moving north need to prepare for lifestyle changes as well as a bit of culture shock.
“The culture’s just different up here — we can’t kid ourselves,” he said. “Take someone from northern Ontario and move them south, and it takes time to adapt. The same thing is true coming north.”
Leal said another draw for agricultural development in the north is a more stable and less cyclical market, one that won’t wipe out whole communities in the event of a global commodity slump (such as that facing the northern forestry sector).
But for New Democrat MPP John Vanthof, whose family owned a dairy farm in Temiskaming until a few years ago, that kind of talk is alarming.
“Beef expansion is certainly possible in northern Ontario — there are profitable beef farms there now,” Vanthof said. “But people are talking about the cattle market like it’s non-cyclical, and it’s as cyclical as anything else in northern Ontario. It goes up and down like forestry and mining, and you have to take that into account.”
If Vanthof is right, the government could end up selling Crown land to private farmers only to see the policy fail anyway when global beef demand slumps again.
Leal thinks rising incomes in the developing world will create sustained demand, and sustained high prices for beef — and that means a market opportunity. “Ontario is going to be called upon to play a major role, and we’ll have to look at every part of Ontario to meet that need.”
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