The Myths and Barriers to Agriculture in Northern Ontario
In northern Ontario there aren’t any jobs, it’s cold 12 months of the year, and the climate and landscape do not allow for agriculture. None of those are true, of course, but those are three of the perceived barriers to northern Ontario agriculture that researchers from the University of Guelph and the Université de Hearst discovered in a study released September 2019.
The study is entitled Understanding the Barriers to Livestock Production in the Clay Belt: An Economic, Social and Environmental Analysis, and it set out to determine what challenges farmers face in livestock agriculture in the Clay Belt, but the findings are broadly generalizable to agriculture across northern Ontario.
The challenges facing farmers were described as barriers, and to identify these barriers the researchers conducted interviews with current, retired, and prospective farmers, as well as representatives from municipalities, farm organizations, and other agricultural related groups in the Clay Belt region along highway 11.
The barriers the researchers noted were broken down into three categories: economic, social and environmental.
The report stressed that the barriers identified included both real barriers and perceived barriers, as both need to be addressed.
Unlike some of the social and environmental barriers, all of the surveyed groups generally agreed on the economic barriers. The most significant and widely mentioned barrier was the simple profitability aspect of livestock agriculture. Livestock are labour- intensive, require high cost input, and are subject to volatile market prices.
Secondary to that were concerns about availability of land, land clearing, and tile drainage. Much of the available farmland in the Clay Belt, and in many places in northern Ontario, is land that has been allowed to go fallow for extended periods of time and would require extensive rehabilitation to return to productivity. In the same vein, the clay soils of the Highway 11 corridor benefit from tile drainage, allowing fields to be worked earlier in the spring compensating for, to some degree, the shortened growing seasons in the north. The tenth barrier relates to these concerns, as provincial grants are often available to support land clearing and tile drainage installation, but these grants do not cover the full cost of work, nor are they reliable from year to year.
A tertiary group of barriers is related to supplies, equipment, services, and more generally the distance some farmers need to travel to access services and markets. The report notes that agricultural industries and services in northern Ontario are largely clustered in the Algoma, Sudbury/Nipissing, and Temiskaming regions, which can discourage agricultural development far from those places. The report noted that current farmers in northern Ontario broadly agreed that the distances that must be travelled to access markets and the limited degree of farm industry does not exist to the same extent in southern Ontario.
Unlike the previous economic barriers which were widely agreed upon, prospective farmers, rather than current or retired farmers, were more concerned about perceived social barriers. Interestingly, farmers from Mennonite communities included in the surveys did not identify any social barriers to livestock production in northern Ontario.
The perception from prospective farmers was generally that northern Ontario has few opportunities for employment beyond the service sector or resource extraction, and that the more geographically dispersed nature of northern Ontario communities resulted in a lack of a sense of community, as well as community services, social organizations or places to shop.
As noted earlier, many of these barriers are perceptions. Certainly communities in Ontario’s far north face some of these barriers, but most agricultural communities in northern Ontario do not.
There were a wide variety of environmental barriers identified by prospective, current, and retired farmers, which were grouped into the above categories. The researchers wrote that the barriers were generally more perception than truth.
Most of the barriers were related to the difference in climate and length of growing season between southern and northern Ontario. There were concerns that the climate allowed for fewer crops to be grown than in the south, and that unpredictable weather patterns could result in the loss of these crops. This was seen as especially detrimental to livestock producers growing their own feed to keep costs down.
Drawing from the barriers that the researchers identified as myths, they created a list of the top ten myths in northern Ontario agriculture, and then refuted each one in turn.
1. Myth: “Everyone in northern Ontario, including farmers, only speak French.” Fact: The researchers point out that in fact, according to Statistics Canada, almost 90% of the population in northern Ontario identified themselves as bilingual or English only. There are certainly some primarily French speaking communities like Hearst, but nowhere in northern Ontario is exclusively francophone.
2. Myth: “There are no job opportunities in northern Ontario.” Fact: There are actually more diverse industries and job opportunities than people may think. The Far North East Training Board, a non-profit that addresses local labour needs, predicted that in the next 15 years some 43% of the current labour force in the highway 11 corridor will retire, representing more than 27 000 job openings. That finding, extrapolated across all of northern Ontario, represents a significant number of job opportunities in the coming years.
3. Myth: “There are limited social and recreational opportunities in the north.” Fact: To counter this perception the researchers cite the municipal websites of Hearst, Kapuskasing, Smooth Rock Falls and Cochrane, which list a range of social and recreational activities. Most communities in northern Ontario have well-developed social and recreational networks.
4. Myth: “It is always cold in northern Ontario.” Fact: Certainly winters are longer and colder than in much of southern Ontario, but the researchers point out that the average summer temperatures in Kapuskasing are only a couple of degrees Celsius lower than those in Guelph. Summers in northern Ontario are not so different from the rest of the province.
5. Myth: “Healthcare services in northern Ontario are extremely limited.” Fact: While it’s true that highly specialised care often requires a trip south, most northern Ontario communities have access to general practitioners, dentists, nurse practitioners and other health services.
6. Myth: “There are no post-secondary opportunities in northern Ontario.” Fact: In fact, there are a number of colleges and universities in northern Ontario. The researchers list 11 colleges, universities, and campuses, including Algoma University in Sault Ste Marie, Canadore College and Nipissing University in North Bay, and Northern College in Timmins and Haileybury.
7. Myth: “Nothing grows in the north.” Fact: Northern Ontario has a range of soils, ecosystems, and microclimates that allow for a wide variety of crops and livestock to be grown.
8. Myth: “Services that support the agricultural sector are not available in northern Ontario.” Fact: As mentioned earlier, there are concentrations of abattoirs, ag dealers, veterinarians, and other services in the Algoma, Sudbury/ Nipissing, and Temiskaming regions. The main difference between northern and southern Ontario is that the northern Ontario ag services cover wider areas. 9. Myth: “Residents live in isolation within remote communities.” Fact: This is similar to myth number 3. Most farming is clustered around communities in northern Ontario, and these communities have developed agricultural and social organizations.
10. Myth: “The youth of northern Ontario leave at the first opportunity.” Fact: Many young people choose to pursue and education and career in the north. The researchers cite several recent small businesses and organization startups in the north as evidence of a resurgent young population in northern Ontario. Sticking to the Clay Belt focus of the study, the researcher’s examples are la Cordinnerie Francoeur in Kapuskasing, La Chevre Laitiere de Hearst, and La Fromagerie Kapuskoise.
The conclusion drawn from the research was that there are some significant economic, social, and environmental barriers to expansion of livestock agriculture in the Clay Belt, and those findings are generalizable to the rest of northern Ontario. Some of the barriers were myths, as seen above, but some are real and serious concerns. Either way, both need to be understood and dealt with. Myths need to be exposed as such, and real barriers need to be addressed with effective solutions. The full report can be found online at www.farmnorth.com by searching for livestock research from 2019.