Farming in northern Ontario isn’t easy. As compared to the south, the region has a shorter growing season, longer distances to bring crops and livestock to market, and a less robust level of services. Still, in such places as Temiskaming, Kapuskasing, and Cochrane, farmers have been making a go of it for decades, drawn there, in part, because of much cheaper land.
Some farm groups have been advocating for an expansion of agriculture — cattle farming, in particular — in the province’s northeast. So what’s keeping more people from giving it a try? The answer, according to a new report funded by a grant from the Ontario government and produced by researchers at l’Université de Hearst and the University of Guelph, is that common myths and misconceptions about life in the north are scaring off potential farmers.
“Objective factors are as important as myths, and, in fact, they work together,” says Sophie Dallaire, director general of l’Université de Hearst’s InnovaNor centre, which focuses on economic development in the north. “For example, climate and distance are realities of the north, but it’s also a reality that farmers just outside this region are adapting to those realities.”
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Among the myths encountered by researchers in those they interviewed: northern Ontarians exclusively speak French (nearly 90 per cent of the population is either bilingual or speaks English exclusively); there are no job opportunities in the north; and nothing grows in the region. People also tended to exaggerate how harsh the climate is: winters may be colder (and longer), but the difference in summer temperatures between Kapuskasing in the north and Guelph in the south, for example, is only a degree or two.
Dispelling those myths, the report says, will be key to bringing more farmers north. And it’s not just cheaper land that could be enticing: the changing climate means that new crops are now economically sustainable in the region.
“What the research brought forward is that we need to talk about this, promote it,” Dallaire says. “The climate has changed … we manage to grow crops that we never could have 25 years ago.”
Sara Epp, a professor in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development at the University of Guelph and one of the report’s authors, says that while profit barriers have deterred people from moving north into the Clay Belt, “there are people doing it already, and they’re quire successful. It’s just a matter of dispelling the myths and talking about the successes that are already happening.”
The Clay Belt is an area of northern Ontario and Quebec that spans 4 million hectares in this province alone, nearly half of which are categorized as suitable for agriculture. The region was initially settled by Europeans in the early 20th century, but the number of active farms there began declining precipitously after the Second World War. The agri-food industry is largely clustered in the southernmost part, around the municipality of Temiskaming Shores.
The research from Guelph and Hearst focuses primarily on the larger, northern part of the region along the Highway 11 corridor between Hearst and Cochrane.
Epp says that, as well as working to dispel misconceptions about life in the north, the government should make financial commitments to supporting farmers.
“The easiest, quickest win is probably just to maintain the programs that already exist,” says Epp. “There’s a lot of fear from people interested in moving to the north, saying, ‘If that funding stops, I can’t farm as productively.’” She notes that the soils in the Clay Belt generally drain poorly and that farmers often rely on provincial loans to help finance the installation of tile drainage.
Another possible approach would be for the provincial government — the largest landlord in the region — to release Crown lands to prospective farmers, in consultation with Indigenous people.
“Yes, we think the province should be more active in releasing farmland,” says Gabriella Miron, one of the researchers from l’Université de Hearst. “Private land is actually more affordable for farmers, but land-access issues have reduced the feasibility of private purchases.” In short, when private farmland is available, it’s affordable — but actual opportunities to buy land in the north are few and far between.
Miron says that it can be difficult for farmers to find large lots to establish or expand their operations, noting it can sometimes be a challenge even to discover who owns parcels of land. In some cases, properties have been handed down to an absentee landlord in southern Ontario, and there’s no obvious way to contact them.
“A lot of land that was used for farming in the past isn’t being used now and has reverted to a kind of natural state,” says Epp. “There’s a lot of opportunity with Crown land, but the risk is that sort of ‘fire sale’ mentality.” She suggest a different approach, one that would see municipalities and the province create a clear and accessible registry of land ownership for the privately held land in the region so that prospective farmers could try to purchase that land first.
But if there are costs associated with bringing new farmers to the region, there are also benefits to changing the makeup of the regional economy.
“We must try to build on this opportunity, and not only to strengthen our agriculture sector and diversify our local economy. It could create new jobs to both help with youth retention — and maybe even tourism,” Miron says, adding, “There are obstacles to farming in the north, but there are also real solutions to those obstacles.”