Farm Fads

Our transition to winter has been rather dramatic, hasn’t it?  I hope you were ready for it!  They were caught off guard in Brockville – they got a solid foot of snow!   We are sort of scrambling here to get snow tires on and winterize things around the farm.  That Christmas is only a month away is a rather sobering thought as well, isn’t it?   I’ll guess I will make a plug, that maple syrup and prepaid cards make wonderful gifts… we even have some nice outdoor stainless steel hearths that would make a nice big ticket item… 

But Christmas consumer purchases aside, of course the main thing we are preparing for is the imminent arrival of the twins.  We added an additional room to the barndominium and while drywalling around the crude, hand hewn timbers that make up the skeleton of our home, I am struck (as I often am) by all of the rapid changes this structure has stood witness to.

We all often regard farming as a quaint, slow and timeless tradition.  Over much of the globe, for most of history, that has largely been true;  Farmers of Forty Centuries is an amazing account of the ancient and productive farming of the Far East, for example.  North American agriculture, however, has been a story of constant change, where the intersection of markets, labour, technology, and even politics have made for agricultural paradigms that rarely last longer than a generation.

These trends can be continent wide or relatively localized.  Here in Eastern Ontario the first cash crop of significance was wheat, which commanded a strong price back in England and whose production was required in order to secure your land grant.  In the latter half of the 1800’s, as the prairies opened up, the wheat trade went west, and farmers in this part of Ontario switched to dairying.   This being before refrigeration, the milk went to cheddar cheese making for export to the British empire, and was carried out only in the summer months on cheap, abundant grass pastures.  At the turn of the century, Pittsburgh Township alone had almost two dozen cheese factories: basically spaced at the distance one could haul milk on a summer’s day with horses before it spoiled.   Farms prospered in this period, and most of the stately farmhouses in our area date from that time. There is a replica of the Mammoth Cheese in Perth that celebrates this era:

As technology progressed, dairying became a year round concern and we entered what was probably the closest thing we have had to a “Golden Age” in agriculture in these parts, where a family could farm an hundred acres, milk 20 cows or so and make a reliable, respectable living (often with mother teaching school or working at the hospital).   Mind you, you had to get up at 4:30 am 365 days a year, but you got to be your own boss and even enjoyed electricity, indoor plumbing, phone service, television, hockey, and the odd vacation.  This was accomplished with square bales, milking machines, and corn silage.  Pretty much every silo you see in these parts represents one of these units.  Now, this style of farming still required a great deal of hard work, but was relatively advanced compared to cradling wheat with a scythe or the loose hay and hand milking that supplied the cheese era  (I can’t imagine what people’s hands looked like then). 

The children of these farms were such resourceful, hard workers they largely got picked off by industry and government after being the first generation to attend post secondary.  Nearly an entire cohort leaving the farm for higher standard of living, without the toil – this era has largely come to a close.  Dairies have consolidated the landbases of many former farms and a typical dairy farm no longer knows their cows by name.  Nigel and Claire (whose cheese we sell) still name their beasts.  Other friends of ours, who milk upwards of an hundred cows in their tie stall barn actually still have nameplates over each and every one of their cows, complete with lineage.  When I remarked to Mike that that was pleasant and unusual to see in this day and age he looked at me very earnestly: “Well Charles, these are our friends and coworkers…” 

But, Nigel and Claire and Mike and Tessa, are the exceptions to the rule, and we are even beginning to see offshore workers coming in to work on large dairy farms – along with robot milkers.   For better or worse, the long term viability of the Canadian dairy industry is very much tied up with our supply management (quota) system, which effectively closes the border for most American milk products.   Were we to go free-trade with diary, Canadian dairy farms would likely see the same fate as those in traditional northern dairying states, like Vermont, New York and Wisconsin, where the industry is in free fall, the smaller farms – more expensive to operate – being unable to compete with the scale of mega dairies in places like South Dakota or Colorado.

Morgan mentioned I should explain what is going on in this picture.  This is calf feeding on a dairy in South Dakota.  Those are bottles on the trailers and those are calf hutches on the left.  I don’t want my neighbours to have to compete with this. 

Should dairying ever fall by the wayside in this area (let’s hope not), soybeans would most likely completely come to dominate the landscape: something they are already well on their way to do.  But, like all agricultural trends… who knows what will be next?  In other parts of Ontario we have seen various trends come and go. 

Although largely comprised of marginal land, Prince Edward County, one of the longest settled parts of Ontario, has witnessed many agricultural fads.  At one point it was a major exporter of brewing ingredients to the US: both barley and hops (as referenced by “Barley Days Brewery“).  When canning technology developed, both fruits (primarily sour cherries) and vegetables (tomatoes, peas and beans) were grown and canned well into the post war era, when there were dozens of canneries in Waupoos, Mountainview, Wellington, Bloomfield and Picton.  Sprague Foods is the modern incarnation of one of these businesses, now operating in Belleville (though no longer buying from local farmers).    That shaley limestone soil that grew such good tomatoes two generations ago is now sought after for vineyards, which in the context of The County should probably be regarded more as a lifestyle/tourism trend than a proper agricultural industry.

Further afield in Ontario, Norfolk County provides another interesting example.   Today, Norfolk is known as the garden of Ontario, where land is extremely valuable and many high value crops are grown.  It was not always this way however.  In 1920 most of the sandy land in Norfolk County had been exhausted and abandoned.  Hungarian immigrants began experimenting with tobacco on the worn out soils.  In 1925 there were 60 acres of tobacco.  In only five years, by 1930, there were 14,000 acres planted.   The industry plateaued in the 1980’s with over 25,000 acres and has been in steady decline since.  In 2008 the federal government bought tobacco growers’ quota back from them for $1.05/lb, spending $284 million dollars.   Although most growers took the buyout, as of 2020 there were still 7,400 acres of tobacco grown in Norfolk and the industry is actually making a bit of a comeback. Many growers switched to similarly labour intensive crops like vegetables, and most interestingly, ginseng: which is almost entirely exported to China and has an extremely volatile market.  Grown under black shade cloth to mimic the forest canopy, it is very evident from above around the old tobacco centre of Tillsonburg.

I personally find it odd that the same governments who were very recently hellbent to Stop Smoking now suddenly find themselves in the business of promoting cannabis smoking – the latest agricultural trend, of course.   This may have to do with the overlap of ownership between those who drafted the legislation and those who were the initial investors in the industry!   It’s hard to say, but I often question to what extent the government is actually concerned with our health…  But the state of our lungs aside, agricultural fads can have tremendous impacts on the fabric of the landscape as well.

“Sheep Fever” is probably the most remarkable North American example of the plasticity of agricultural trends and their effects on the land around us.  In the early 19th century, a number of coincident developments led to the rapid rise (and fall) of a domestic wool industry in New England. 

The first water powered woolen mill was built in Gray, Maine in 1791 by Samual Mayall.  Born in England, Mayall had worked in the textile industry and quietly took a number of well kept secrets with him to the US when he emigrated.  The English guilds were so outraged, they actually twice tried to assassinate him (rather comically by the way, once with a poisoned hat, and later with a gift of two primed pistols aimed at the opener of the box – which failed to go off), but the damage had been done, and quickly, water powered textile mills were a proven concept along the many rivers of the east coast.

Now the wool…. Merino sheep produce the most fine and desirable wool.  They produce lots of it too: the sheep having been bred to have wrinkly skin, increasing the surface area to produce fleece.  The breed originated in Spain and was part of a tightly controlled industry dominated for centuries by the Spanish nobility: breeding stock was forbidden to leave the country and hadn’t even made it to Spanish colonies in the New World.  But, when Napoleon invaded in 1808, rather than hand the industry to the French, they opted to begin exporting.  William Jarvis, American consul to Portugal, quickly became the largest buyer, and began exporting thousands of them to his farm in Vermont for sale. 

The war of 1812 and subsequent boycotting of English goods further spurred the woolen industry, and in the flurry to supply this burgeoning market something like 80% of the forests in Vermont and New Hampshire – which had been chipped away at for shipbuilding and subsistence farming – had been cleared for sheep pasture.   By 1840 there were several million sheep in New England and the hills were criss-crossed with 250,000 miles of stone walls.  At that point, naturally, the market collapsed: the price of wool dropping in half in a single year. Merino sheep had also made it to Argentina and Australia, as well as the newly opened American west.  The cotton industry had enjoyed a similar growth spurt and the widespread application of the cotton gin and human slavery made it very competitive with wool.   The industry imploded as quickly as it formed.  The farmers migrated westward to better soils and the denuded hills rapidly reclothed themselves.

The subsequent regrowth of pine actually spurred a logging boom in the early 1900’s and the subsequent regrowth from that clear cut is what forms the hardwood forests of New England today.  Agriculture is limited now to fertile valleys and intervales like the Connecticut.   The hillsides are for recreation, wildlife and maple syrup.  The old fencelines and farms are visible through the forest canopy with LIDAR (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging).  The mills held on and adapted, and formed the basis of many small towns until NAFTA finally did that industry in as well.  What’s left is a very pretty, but generally unproductive landscape, carrying a population whose goods and wealth are not derived from the landscape.  It is very similar to our area in this regard. The food, fibre, building materials and energy coming from afar.  

So not only is the constant flux of North American agriculture extremely destabilizing for rural communities, it also puts us in a sort of uncanny valley, where we experience a broad sense of disconnection and unease stemming from our removal from the landscape.  For instance, although we are surrounded by trees, our furniture, floors and cabinetry are largely made out of sawdust and glue with a picture of wood on it.   As human culture retreats into digital life, these disconnects are largely “felt” but not in any way addressed – on the contrary they push us farther into a virtual reality.   “Real” things, like solid wood, natural fibres or whole food have become niche, luxury items which not only must be sought out, but even become status symbols: the artificial products being the scraps left for us plebs.

And so while I hope you don’t shop with us to impress your friends (I hope you do so because you like the food), I do hope you can share in the same grounding I experience I enjoy when I look out at our fields and gardens: “There’s the soil, there’s the food, this is my task.  I can see it and touch it and it makes sense”.   It’s strange that this has become fleeting, but who knows what will happen next! 

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