Cultivating the Promise of the North

Last week, I woke in the middle of the night to go north. Well, northwest, then north, then more northwest. It took over nine hours to get to Kapuskasing, a mostly mining and lumber town of about 9,500 people.

Kap sits in what’s called the Great Clay Belt of Northern Ontario — approximately 16 million acres of land, most of it owned by the Crown and covered in pine trees. Many within this province (the government, for one) see down below those trees to the rich, clay soil and see the next frontier for farming in Ontario.

Exploring and developing the north as the “New Ontario” isn’t actually novel. New Liskeard, a much more reasonable five hour drive from home and part of the Little Clay Belt, was touted as THE place to get out to and farm in the early 1900s. The push must have worked, as New Liskeard today is a wide open expanse of gently rolling farmland, for the most part.

Machinery dealerships, grain elevators, and seed and fertilizer dealers, while limited, populate the area around New Liskeard, up to Earlton and beyond, making it far from major markets, but certainly not remote.

As we inched towards Kapuskasing, however, the land gets flatter and closes in with literally nothing but spruce trees and hydro lines. I’m told the land was farmed long ago, in the 20s and 30s, but northern success has always hinged on mining and lumber first, farming and anything else third and down the list.

Why was I so far off the beaten path? Curiosity, for one, after having heard Terry Phillips speak at the Southwest Agriculture Conference back in January about the opportunities here, and also because I was invited to speak at the two-day Cultivating the Great Clay Belt conference, hosted by the Northeast Community Network.

Once at the conference, I was blown away by the tenacity and enterprising spirit of many of the speakers (and also completely caught off guard by the amount of Francophones in the region!). From cheese, to beef and lamb, to vodka, I was impressed not just by the range of businesses represented, but also by the commitment to local. And not “local” as an adjective to give consumers feel-good-fuzzies encouraging them to pay more for a product, but local as in “we want to feed ourselves first.” For a remote community, self-sufficiency is always top-of-mind, and that’s evident in the business ventures thriving here.

There are good reasons to talk potential in the north, for sure — climate change is working in the north’s favour, adding days to the frost-free period, and there’s plenty of decent quality land below all those trees. A growing global population and urbanization of farmland in the very productive south seem motivation enough to start looking elsewhere to “make” more land, as it were.

But there are challenges, and attending this conference solidified what some of them are for me, and perhaps others. For one, I noticed that, of the farmers featured at the conference at least two of them were either farming in the north without their families or from a southern Ontario base. For real development, progress, and settlement to happen, the north must have more to offer than just “cheap” land. As Terry Phillips identified earlier this year, there are social costs to pioneering far from everywhere.

Crops get planted between windrows of tree stumps in Ontario’s northern Great Clay Belt

And then there are those trees. Even if we can find creative ways to limit the greenhouse gas production and/or lack of sequestration from clearing millions of acres of land (which I think we can, and for good reasons), that takes time, effort, and money. Some I spoke with were surprised to learn that if you’re buying land, you don’t own the trees (and you sure don’t get the mineral rights). As always, it’s mining and lumber, then farming, you see.

And clearing land takes time. Not just for the work to be done, but time to get rid of piles of stumps, and, possibly, to overcome the pH problem a whack of spruce trees leaves behind. Some farmers are planting between the windrows of stumps for the first year. Others spoke of a nearly 3-year process to get land into production. All of this is possible, of course, it just takes time.

There are certainly those looking north for opportunity. New Liskeard has plenty of cleared land for sale, and if you’re willing to make some calls and dig, you can find more remote parcels available, too. My curiosity still lies in what the tipping point is — what’s the critical mass, or business investment, or key piece of infrastructure that makes the remoteness, the time, and the energy worth it for the people to flow north?

In the next while, I’ll be posting my discussions with a few key players in the north and trying to find the answer to that question, along with useful contacts and information for anyone looking for a pioneering adventure.

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