Last of the family farms

Michael Johansen
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The hay fields I once knew too well are no more. Summer after summer, back in my teenage years, I used to spill a lot of sweat doing my bit to harvest cattle fodder out where there was no shade to protect against the hot sun.
First, the tall grass had to be mowed down before it went too far to seed and lost most of its nutritional value. Then, the hay would be left where it fell for several days to let it dry enough so it wouldn't rot when stored, but not enough to make it brittle and worthless as cow food.
If rain didn't spoil the schedule, we'd then bale the grasses, pile them high on rickety wagons, lumber the unwieldy loads to the old barn and stack the bales inside, storing them to be used as winter fodder for about 30 head of beef cattle.
Depending largely on the weather, haying on my family's farm took about three weeks of morning-to-night work - work that taught me the skill of handling a three-pronged pitchfork and gave me an abiding distaste for mixing chaff and sweat.
That farm, and the work done on it, was fairly typical for farms found on the southern Canadian Shield 30 years ago. The fields had been laboriously cleared in the stony and heavily forested valleys between high rocky hills about a century earlier. For many decades - even though the soil was never the best for vegetable or grain crops and geography limited farm sizes to, at most, 160 acres of usable land - those farms were sufficient to support families that took care of small herds of cattle, cultivated market gardens and sometimes (such as in our case) raised commercially viable flocks of egg-laying chickens.
Unfortunately, the old family farm (no longer owned by my family) is still typical of farms in the region because hardly any farming is going on anymore anywhere. This time of year, the fields are deeply buried in snow, but it's still obvious no hay has been harvested from them for at least a decade.
The forest is returning. Where once grass grew high, now young pines push up to the sky, soon to provide the shade I longed for all those summers ago, but also making the work I and the other members of my family did quite impossible.
That is what's sadly typical of the hundreds of family farms that used to produce food of all kinds throughout the southern reaches of the Canadian Shield - they're almost all gone, almost all allowed to become overgrown.
Regions that used to support themselves agriculturally are now forced to import most of their needed food from far away - a situation that is far too common everywhere, not just for the marginally arable land on the Shield, but also for agriculturally rich areas like southern Ontario's Golden Horseshoe (still dwindling despite the creation of protected green zones).
Whole continents are going through it, too. Europeans, for example, are currently trying to reverse old misguided policies that have endangered their ability to feed themselves by bankrupting small farms and favouring large, cash-oriented agribusinesses.
Europeans and many Canadians have begun to see that far from being historic relics that should be abandoned altogether, family farms are the most cost-effective and efficient way to produce the most amount of food on the least amount of land. In addition, family farms - as opposed to huge, corporate agribusinesses - enhance the health of rural economies, and by providing localized sources of food, reduce the need to wastefully ship produce thousands of kilometres.
Labradorians know this very well. Labrador has supported many profitable small farms, but now consumers are forced to look far outside the region to buy eggs and other food that could be grown or raised locally.
However, without a federal policy that recognizes the harmfulness of corporate farming, Canada's once numerous and productive family farms will continue to disappear. When they're all overgrown, the solutions they could have provided for many of our economic and environmental problems will be gone, too.

Michael Johansen has gone into travel mode. For the next few months, he'll be writing from everywhere between Labrador and Vancouver Island.

Geographic location: Labrador, Southern Ontario, Canada Vancouver Island

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