Interest in developing and expanding agriculture in northern Ontario has increased recently. Industry groups such as Beef Farmers of Ontario have pushed to expand their sectors by utilizing underdeveloped, less expensive land in the north. OMAFRA has been working hard to provide support for this initiative. Municipalities across the district of Cochrane, coalescing under the banner of the North East Community Network recently hosted a two-day conference to focus on the challenges and opportunities in the region known as the great claybelt, as well as across northern Ontario as a whole.
The conference “Cultivating the Great Claybelt” attracted more than 250 attendees to Kapuskasing in late March 2017.
While farmers made up the largest percentage of participants; processors, economic development practitioners and government staff also attended. Monique Legault, north region manager for OMAFRA opened the conference with a bang by outlining how government supports industry-led initiatives to expand agriculture. She confirmed that OMAFRA is hiring a full time Agriculture Development Advisor for Cochrane district to assist with this effort.
A highlight of day one was a presentation by two members of the Anabaptist community who talked about the challenges of moving to new areas in order to allow family members to get into farming; noting that the secret to success is “to get up early and work hard.”
Other speakers talked about how they were drawn to the north by the lure of cheap land, and then learned to love the lifestyle of the north; fishing, hunting, and the quiet peace of the land.
While the land is made up of high quality clay soil (the great claybelt) its wetter climate means tile drainage needs to be installed, and scrub brush needs to be cleared.
In addition of OMAFRA staff, fellow government staff from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry talked about funding programs and land clearing responsibilities.
Keynote speaker, Matt Bowman, president of Beef Farmers of Ontario, brought a message of opportunity and hope, not only for the beef industry, but for economic development in northern Ontario as a whole. He spoke about the potential to grow the cow herd by 100,000 in the north and added that growth like this could bring over 4000 sustainable jobs.
The trade show portion of the conference highlighted businesses that are ready to help new and growing farms with northern agriculture expansion including farm machinery dealerships, farm product suppliers, and educational institutions.
Day two highlights included a presentations on how climate change is making farming more feasible in northern Ontario and how to market local food.
The conference wrapped up with a presentation from Lyndsey Smith of Real Agriculture. Lyndsey spoke about how farmers need to create a dialogue with consumers and other industries to keep everyone onside as this opportunity of farming the north expands.
The palpable enthusiasm in the crowd provided renewed vigour in support of the Northern Ontario Agriculture, Aquaculture and Food Processing Sector Strategy which is being developed in response to the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario. Ministry staff have been inundated with post conference calls from interested people looking to explore the potential to cultivate the great claybelt.