By John Miner
In Canada’s first 150 years, agriculture in Ontario and across the country has experienced stunning changes, from massive social upheaval to jaw-dropping advances in technology.
How different was it at the time of Confederation? For one, there were almost as many horses as there were dairy cows.
The 1867 Year Book and Almanac for British North America provides another glimpse. Take land. One hundred fifty years ago the government was still giving it away in 100-acre parcels if you settled on specific roads.
Other Crown land was sold to farmers for 70 cents an acre. The 166-page Almanac itself sold for 25 cents if you went for the coloured map and cover edition.
The Almanac records that 21.4 million acres were sold or given away in 1865 by the government. Free land was provided as an inducement to poor immigrants from Europe and it worked.
Ontario farmers have been a flexible lot over 150 years, adjusting to emerging markets and collapses.
Soybeans are a prime example. While soybeans now rival corn as Ontario’s largest cash crop, until the 1970s they were only grown in a few pockets near Windsor. But by 2009 it was the field crop with the highest reported area.
Tobacco enjoyed the title of Ontario’s most valuable cash crop in the 1970s and early 80s before going into a tailspin. When the Loyalists first arrived in Ontario after the American Revolution, it was hemp that the government urged them to produce.
At the time of Confederation, wheat was the big crop in Upper Canada with farmers harvesting 24.6 million bushels, followed by 21.2 million bushels of oats, 2.8 million bushels of barley, and 2.2 million bushels of corn. The 1861 Census also recorded farmers producing a lot of buckwheat, peas, turnips, hay, butter and pork.
By all accounts, it wasn’t an easy job 150 years ago.
In his just-published book, How different it was: Canadians at the time of Confederation, Michael J. Goodspeed describes how farmers were willing to take tremendous risks and endure considerable hardships to achieve land ownership.
“Weather, crop and animal diseases, sickness, or injury could be critical factors in the success and prosperity of a family farm. One year a farmer could find himself with bumper crops and surplus income, and the next he could be plunged into hunger, debt, and poverty,” Goodspeed writes. “Frosts, droughts, and insect infestations were common and caused near-famine conditions in many areas.”
While life expectancy is now estimated at 81.9 years, at the time of Confederation it was just 41.6 years with one in five children not making it to age five. Waves of devastating diseases included diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, measles and whooping cough.
Innovation has been one constant over the years. Confederation-era farmers were incredibly skilled, building and repairing almost everything they owned.
Writes Goodspeed: “Beside the barn, or next to the farmhouse, was often a small shed with the farmer’s tools: A carpenter’s bench, a vise, hammers, numerous saws, planes, chisels, perhaps a wood lathe, and woodworking tools with which they fashioned shingles, plough handles, oxen and horse yokes, leather work of every description, furniture, toys.”
The 1866 Almanac lists hundreds of agricultural patents that were issued in just one year from improvements in horseshoes to mould board ploughs and reaping and mowing machines.
The technological pace only quickened in the 20th century with tractors replacing horses, combines taking over from threshing machines and new devices such as hydraulics. The breakthroughs made it possible for farmers to do more, handling more acres and relying less on hired help or neighbours.
Crop yields per acre climbed steadily. In 1950, according to Statistics Canada, corn yields in Ontario averaged 48.8 bushels an acre, something that would now be considered a crop disaster. We saw great advancements in fertilizers and pesticides and high-yield seed varieties, thanks to the green revolution from the 1930s to 1960s. And then we got more genetic-seed engineering and the introduction of tile drainage. By 1985, the average corn yield climbed to over 100 bushels an acre for the first time and in 2015 hit 170 bushels.
At the same time there has been a steady decline in the farm population and a loss of political clout. At the time of Confederation, more than 80 per cent of Ontario’s population lived in rural areas. Farmers are now 1.4 per cent of total population
Terry Daynard, a Guelph-area grain farmer and former agricultural scientist, says the fall in farm population might be the most significant development.
“This has had major effects on rural communities, schools, churches and more,” Daynard says. “Farm families are now a minority even in the most rural communities.”