The economics of modern agriculture have rekindled interest in pushing long-abandoned farms in northeastern Ontario into production.
Millions of acres considered part of the fertile Northern Clay Belt remain largely undeveloped in municipalities stretching north and west from New Liskeard since the region was first opened to farming in the 1950s.
Alain Robichaud, economic development officer for Val Rita-Harty and Opasatika, said many of those would-be farmers, having been offered land in exchange for clearing it for crops or pasture, subsequently abandoned their efforts as they were lured into the bush to support the thriving timber industry. The land is now often owned by their descendants.
A lifetime later, economic development departments in area municipalities have banded together to put together a survey of landowners, aimed at attracting agricultural investment back to the area.
Why it matters: With land prices in parts of southern Ontario beyond the reach of many aspiring farmers, attention is turning to affordable properties in areas stretching from Powassan all the way to Hearst.
Robichaud is confident this latest effort will help communities in the region diversify their economies to include more agricultural products.
The genesis for this new survey was a 2008 study into agricultural land in the region. The Cochrane district reported more than 75,000 acres of farmland from 184 farms, as reported by the Northeast Community Network that is co-ordinating the new survey. But this represented only about two per cent of the more than three million acres classified as type 2, 3, and 4 soils in the area.
Robichaud said the study — undertaken before he took over his role in Val Rita-Harty and Opasatika — indicated there were more than one million acres of arable land that could be converted to agricultural use.
Ever since word got out about that study’s findings, “we started having inquiries about where is that land?” He and his compatriots fielded calls from within Canada, but also from the United States and as far afield as Germany and the Ukraine.
Economic development officers couldn’t respond with any clarity because privacy legislation prevents them either from knowing exactly who owns what parcels of land, or from disclosing that information.
“A lot of the land is owned by people outside the community” he said, noting owners are located across southern Ontario and Quebec, but also the U.S. or Europe, which adds to the complexity.
So the EDCs decided to do a survey in a way that might open up the possibility for them to connect those inquiring with those who might be interested in negotiating a conversion to agricultural purposes — either through sale or other arrangement. The information gathered in the survey will be “enmeshed” into the existing CGIS land-use databases that the municipalities already maintain.
Guelph-based consultant Harry Cummings and Associates is coordinating the survey (link). Funding for the project is from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs’ Rural Economic Development program.
Robichaud cites a couple of examples of how once-neglected properties in the district have more recently been transformed into profitable farmland.
The prospect of affordable land attracted a group of Mennonites to an area near Matheson eight years ago. They have since populated a significant portion of the area. They’ve cleared former farmsteads, and established a variety of businesses including poultry, pork and crops. “You talk to people in the area and they say, before that, those concessions looked like a ghost town.”
More recently, an Alberta farmer relocated to the Kapuskasing area and began buying or renting properties. He now farms close to 2,000 acres, including a former federal government research farm. In Alberta, he was leasing land for about $300 per acre, Robichaud says. In the Clay Belt, he has been purchasing land for that same price and transforming it into profitable cropland.
Beef Farmers of Ontario has been a strong advocate for growing the agricultural sector in the region, he said. Successive downturns in the sector, beginning with the 2003 BSE outbreak, led to a significant decline in Ontario’s beef herd. As sector leaders began looking to rebuild herd numbers, the far northeast has been targeted as a potential growth area.
Distance to market and a scarcity of infrastructure are still drawbacks. However, Robichaud insists that, once a few farmers establish themselves and create a demand for better infrastructure and more readily accessible farm-related services and businesses, those things will come.
“It’s a capacity thing. Once you get the ball rolling, it will happen.”
While there is quite a bit of privately owned land, there’s also a great deal of Crown land. And having Crown land converted for agricultural use is generally a long-winded and complex process, sometimes involving other government ministries.
Easing that complexity can come through owning land abutting the Crown land in question. But only time and political lobbying could shorten the process with regards to accessing Crown land.
Still, the Northern Clay Belt has long ago proven it’s a vast, fertile stretch of northeastern Ontario. Cost-share programs continue for tile drainage projects. And a 30-year overall warming trend has seen annual crop heat units (CHU) — in the Earlton region at least, according to one study — increase from 1800 to 2300 CHU.
“It’s a long process,” Robichaud concedes, “but there’s definitely an opportunity.”