This article was originally published November 26, 2014.
If Ontarians think of their farms at all, they're likely to think of fields of corn and soy, maybe apple orchards or pick-your-own berries. They probably don't think about the land around Timmins, or even Kapuskasing, as a part of Ontario's farm sector. But northerners are hoping to change that, thanks to high land prices in the province's traditional southwestern Ontario agricultural heartland — and a little help from global warming.
"I think there are enormous opportunities and room to grow. There's over 1 million acres in potential agricultural land, either old farms that were abandoned, or additional open fields that could be brought back into production. There's room to grow to levels that were bigger than before," says Antoine Vezina, economic development consultant with the City of Timmins. "History proves that agriculture can be successful up here."
"Up here" is the Clay Belt, some 29 million acres of land in both Ontario and Quebec that are the remains of a glacial lake from the last ice age. (The Clay Belt is normally divided into its northern and southern parts, with Timmins and Kapuskasing in the north, and Temiskaming Shores farther south.) Surveyors for the Ontario government first identified it more than a century ago, and the government began encouraging settlement when new rail lines made it more accessible at the beginning of the 20th century.
Farming in the Clay Belt has waxed and waned in Ontario over the century. The first efforts by the rail companies to lure settlers north were almost comically enthusiastic, boasting of a winter that was only modestly colder than in the south. Initial efforts to settle returning soldiers after the First World War were largely a failure, with a provincial inquiry finding that $800,000 ($9.3 million in 2014 dollars) had been wasted.
The amount of cleared, farmed land in the northern Clay Belt peaked in 1951 at nearly 125,000 acres, but then entered a persistent decline. By 2006 just 35,000 acres were under plow.
But now, northern farmers and their advocates say there are opportunities to turn that story around, at least in part. The biggest economic push towards northern farms comes from the sky-high prices for farmland in southern Ontario, which have seen double-digit increases in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
While land prices have increased somewhat in the north, they've been a far cry from the leaps and bounds in the south.
"The beef farmers are suffering because their land down south is too expensive, so they're looking north," says Kapuskasing town councillor Laurier Guillemette. "They have to move before land up here gets too expensive."
Matt Bowman agrees. He's the northern Ontario director for the Beef Farmers of Ontario, and he operates a beef and cash crop farm on the Temiskaming land his family settled in 1906.
"We think it's a tremendous opportunity to grow the beef cow herd in this area of the province, where there's not as much pressure on land prices," Bowman says. The Beef Farmers believe there's an opportunity to add 100,000 cattle to the province's current herd of about 300,000.
Mennonites have also been moving into the north, where cheap land allows for large farms that can sustain large families.
Aside from cheaper land, the other factor drawing farmers north is the longer growing season. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, the annual crop heat units — a measure of how warm the growing season is — have increased by more than 25 per cent.
"The weather's definitely changed; if you look at the stats it's definitely warmer than it used to be. In New Liskeard, we're growing soybeans where 20 years ago that was unheard of," Bowman says.
David Pearson, an earth sciences professor at Laurentian University, says the growing season is getting longer and the winter nights are getting warmer in the Clay Belt, in part because the ice cover on Hudson Bay is so much thinner than it once was.
"That means in the middle of November, Hudson Bay will still be ice-free and nine to 10 degrees in the summer. That means winds coming off Hudson Bay are warming up the fall later into the year," Pearson says.
The warmer weather hasn't meant drier summers, however, and that's a problem for the beef farmers.
"If you look at the three summer months, on average there's at least 14 days with rain, each month," says Guillemette. "So making dry hay under those conditions is almost impossible." That means farmers who want to grow feed for their cattle have to look at other options, like bale silage.
Vezina says new technologies are also making northern agriculture more viable, whether it's increasingly mechanized dairy farms or relatively cheap, easily-installed polytunnel greenhouses that protect farmers from a surprise frost late in the spring or early in the fall.
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There are still plenty of obstacles for northern farmers. Sylvie Fontaine, director of the Hearst Economic Development Corporation, says the region suffers because, outside New Liskeard, there's no critical mass of farmers.
"The farmers, they're all very helpful between each other, but if your machine breaks, good luck finding a replacement while it gets repaired," says Fontaine.
It's a chicken-and-egg problem: it would be easier for new farmers to come to the area if there were already enough farmers to sustain the kind of local services they rely on.
That's especially problematic because the soils of the Clay Belt have excess water that needs to be removed via tile drainage as a rule ("no ifs or buts," says Guillemette). Without tile drainage, crops in the area are unable to grow to their optimal level. And while the provincial government has recently made some grant money available for tile drainage on northern farms, there simply aren't enough licensed contractors in the north to keep up with demand.
For the immediate future, Guillemette, Fontaine, and other boosters for northern agriculture have their sights set on developing the regional economy. That means an emphasis on local produce going to local consumers, through channels like farmers markets, or possibly improving the food options on remote First Nations reserves.
Asked whether the prospects for northern farmers would improve if some of Toronto's local food-obsessed hipsters moved north, Fontaine laughs and says, "We've had some calls, actually."
Guillemette, for his part, has a word of warning for aspiring farmers: the north is still the north.
"It's all good, but you also have to realize ... you have to adapt. You can't come up here bringing the ideas from down south and expect to succeed. Don't work against the weather and the conditions here. You'll lose every time."
Monday evening, The Agenda broadcasts from Timmins to discuss what it takes to succeed at farming in the Clay Belt. Catch the conversation on TVO at 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.
Photo courtesy of localfoodinitiative.com and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)
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