Northern Ontario — Distraction or Attraction?

Sitting in the Northern Exposure presentation at the Southwest Agricultural Conference, I watched with fascination as a room full of southern Ontario farmers were captivated by Prairie agriculture. How’s that, you ask? Well, farming in Ontario’s “north” is far more similar to farming in Manitoba than the rest of the growing region of Ontario, and this Prairie kid had to suppress smiles as farmers’ eyes widened in wonder at the potential for farming “up there.”

(To just get this out of the way, when we talk about Ontario’s northern Great Clay Belt, a good chunk of it actually sits further south than Winnipeg. Moving on.)

Why was a room full of farmers in Ridgetown, Ontario’s deep south, hearing about farming in the north? Because there is opportunity there. There’s also more than a little smoke and mirrors on just what that opportunity truly looks like — there was talk of millions of acres of crown land being sold for a song, then mention of extensive clearing happening, then talk of a mega-farm angel investor. To be honest, much of it sounded too good to be true.

And, like most things that sound too good to be true, the more conversations I had with those in the know, the more I realized two things: yes, there is an extremely huge opportunity in farming Ontario’s north, but, the opportunity isn’t unlike any other and can only be realized with money in your pocket and hard, hard work.

I’ll explain.

First off, the opportunity for expanding farming in Ontario’s north already exists, regardless of government backing. The demographic there is not much different to the farming demographic across Canada — older farmers are retiring or ageing and the area is ripe for turnover. A changing climate is actually working in the north’s favour, expanding cropping options and bumping yields. There is a huge need and demand for logistics, retail support, grain handling, and processing. Plus, land is relatively affordable vs. Southern Ontario ($4,000-$6,000/acre. Again, similar to Manitoba).

Where many got incredibly excited was in the talk of land selling for $1,000 to $1,500 per acre. And not just a little piece here and there, but of 16 million acres of this quality, albeit tree-covered, land. In reality, the amount of land truly available is much less.

A source very close to the development push says that, yes, the Great Clay Belt does cover 16 million acres of land. But of that, only about 4 million is being farmed or could easily be converted to farmland. Of that 4 million, about 1 million is in private hands. Of that, 20% is ripe for new faces and farmers and progress.

That’s a far cry from the rumour of millions of acres at bargain basement prices.

Where did that come from? Well, it is true that of that 16 million acres, the vast majority is crown land, owned by the province. There is certainly talk of some land one day being released, likely for lease, but possibly for sale. There’s even mention of the Liberal government pushing ahead on crown land sales to help improve the balance sheet heading into the next provincial election, a mere 18-months away. To that, I have to ask: If there are 5 government departments currently involved in how certain land is handled and used, just how quickly do you think it can be sold? (Answer: not very).

Read More: OMAFRA’s discussion paper for an agri-food strategy in the north

The bottom line is this: there is most certainly great opportunity in the north. For those who share the pioneering spirit of great-grandparents, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of possibility, but there are also significant challenges to attracting and keeping farmers and entrepreneurs in the area.

Let’s not downplay the importance of social support. I, personally, have had to start from scratch in two provinces. Building a community is hard, lonely, and can at times be a deal breaker on whether you stay or go, especially with new babies or kids underfoot. Partners need jobs and children need playmates and access to schools. We all need doctors and dentists and a night out for our physical and mental health. Then, there’s the agronomic and logistical challenges — timely access to inputs, parts and service, and affordable shipping means a farm makes it or not. Full stop.

Then, there’s the public relations hiccups this expansion is already facing. For a government that is all electric car and solar panel obsessed, encouraging (even facilitating!) the clearing and burning of forest to make way for farming is ripe for consumer backlash. What’s more, this is a government that is simultaneously taxing carbon in hopes of reversing climate change while also singing the praises of a changing climate for the north. Can you have it both ways? We shall see.

For more information about possibilities in the north, visit FarmNorth.

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