The following article is co-authored by Amy Baldwin & Claire May and produced by the NFU-NB. Photo credits: NB Provincial Archives, NFU-NB.
2017 is the 150th anniversary of the signing of Confederation, of which New Brunswick was one of the four main signatories. While the celebration of Canada 150 is controversial, it provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on over 150 years of complicated history as a province and country. It is important to recognize both the achievements and damage done in the name of agriculture and land ownership.
Land grabbing is a phrase used to describe “massive purchases of farmland by foreign and domestic investors”, often prompted by a financial, energy, or food crisis. A common approach used by powerful countries to invest in land outside their borders, but governments are increasingly looking internally for ‘empty’ land that can be utilized by the national government. While Canada, a country founded on colonialism, is no stranger to land grabbing, New Brunswick has watched its farmland transfer hands countless times. While the north-south relationship of land grabbing echoes that of colonialism, it is no longer simply governments buying land. Private investors such as banks, corporations, investment funds or public investors such as stateowned enterprises or sovereign wealth funds are the new players in the land grab circle. Canada 150 provides a timely occasion to acknowledge the history of land grabbing and trace its effects on the agricultural communities of New Brunswick.
To have a meaningful discussion about the history of agriculture in New Brunswick, we must begin back much farther than 150 years ago. New Brunswick is the homeland of the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people. Before European contact, these Indigenous communities grew two types of maize, squash, and beans and practiced seed selection. Indigenous peoples in the area now known as New Brunswick also fished, gathered berries, and hunted to supplement their diets.
The concept of land ownership was alien to Indigenous communities. Instead there was a strong recognition of the interconnected relationship between humans, animals, plants, and their environment. Deeply ingrained in various Indigenous cultures were the ideas of collective ownership rather than private property and territory defined by language – not borders. None of the territory that makes up the Maritime provinces were ever ceded, perhaps because the Indigenous communities did not think it was their property to relinquish.The European view of that period was that agriculture was the most productive way to use land and the marker of civilization. New Brunswick contains 17,599 hectares of reserve land, the largest amount of the Maritime provinces.
The French colonized an area known as Acadia in 1604. Early settlers grew rye, flax, barley, hemp and corn on their marshland. The Acadians became known as défricheurs d’eau (water pioneers) and their distinguishing contribution to agriculture came in the form of dykes and their unique claims to tidal marshes. The Acadians transferred their knowledge of dyking and drainage from France which made the marshland into fertile farmland in their new home. The Acadians had a rare harmonious relationship with the Mi’kmaq people throughout the late 17th and early 18th centuries so the transformation of marshland was not a contentious issue between the two peoples. The Acadians collectively worked to build a dyke system and once it was completed, the land was distributed through a lottery system. After the land was awarded, landowners would trade or buy fields as necessary. The Acadian marshland was used to grow wheat, flax, vegetables and as pasture to raise livestock.
The Acadians were expert farmers. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Acadians continued to support the French on Ile Royale, even when warned not to. They sent them produce, which irritated the British and ultimately contributed to the expulsion. One of the first actions taken during the Acadian expulsion was to take control of the prized dykelands, redistribute them to new farmers, and pass on the skills so that the dykes would be maintained. After 1755, the Acadians were deserted by their government. The Acadians lost their access to resources, seeds, and technology which stunted the progress the Acadians’ had contributed to agriculture. The Acadian farmers who avoided expulsion were removed from fertile soil and replaced by English farmers and a group of New England planters in 1763. Frustrated, some Acadians abandoned farming altogether and became fishermen or lumberers.
Following the American Revolution, 1783 brought a wave of 10,000 new settlers to the St. John River Valley. This population boom, consisting of mostly Loyalists, brought significant social and economic changes to New Brunswick.
1820 – 1850
During this period, it was very common to import food into New Brunswick.
The signing of Confederation. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario join together to form a new country.
During 1900, New Brunswick’s average yield of wheat surpassed both Ontario and Manitoba. The dairy industry was well established, fuelled by 54 cheese factories which used 19.3 million pounds of milk to manufacture 1.8 million pounds of cheese at a value of $189,706. Horses were still used to assist with agricultural work.
World War One had various impacts on agriculture in New Brunswick. The First World War launched the potato industry in this province which has continued to this day. The war also created a demand for hay, grain, and food in general, however once Canada engaged in the war the farming communities lost its labour force to the fight. Further, the war inspired technological advances such as the motor car, electricity, and aviation which would be integrated into farming communities later. As well, there was a fundamental shift towards the mass-production of consumer goods. The First World War also brought the creation of pesticides and nerve gasses used as chemical weapons. Processed meat, such as pre-packaged boneless, skinless chicken breast was also a food practice that was adopted by the public after the war. Before WW1, meat was sold to butcher shops as a whole carcass. The enormous demand for meat altered production as militaries cut meat off the bone to be frozen and shipped more easily in boxes. Energy bars, canned meat, Pringles, a host of different preservatives, microwave suppers, – and microwaves in general – all are part of the military’s contribution to the increasingly processed food, pulling farther and farther away from the farmer.
Between 1932 and 1942, the government gave 4,400 families in New Brunswick farms as a form of relief from the devastation from the Great Depression.
With World War Two came the emergence of high technology which resulted in the widespread training of soldiers, airmen, and sailors in those areas. This allowed industrial industry to expand and lured the young men who returned from war off the farm and into the cities.
There is a rich history of agriculture in New Brunswick that creates a strong foundation for the future of family farms. Since World War One, the potato industry has grown to form the largest field crop of 2016 with growing numbers of fruit, berries, nut crops and maple taps comparedto previous generations.
The latest Government Census of Agriculture shows that the total amount of farm area has decreased but the average farm size has increased from 359 acres five years ago to 370 acres in 2016 . This is another sign of the dangerous shift from smaller, locally-owned family farms to massive farms ran by corporations.
Even in the present day, land grabs are still occurring in this province. There is currently no restriction of foreign ownership of farmland in New Brunswick which leaves the province vulnerable to watch its farm land slip into the hands of foreign governments, large corporations or banks. Just look at our homegrown example, J. D. Irving, Ltd, one of the world’s largest landowners with a total of 3.6 million acres throughout New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Maine. That total does not include the crown land which the private corporation harvests to create pulp and paper. Land grabs transfer ownership of Canadian farms from actual farmers to those of absentee landlords, which should sound familiar as it was the tenant farmer model that so many of our ancestors immigrated to Canada to escape.
Often, we as humans don’t recognize what we have until it is gone. New Brunswick is a beautiful, rich, and fertile province. In acknowledging the losses that the Indigenous people, our ancestors, and our farmers have lived through, only then can we learn from the horrors and mistakes of the past and move forward in an educated way. As proud citizens, we should use this anniversary year to engage and interact with the land on a human scale. By acknowledging and forming a strong, long-term connection with what is underneath our feet, New Brunswickers can maintain a grasp on the province they call home.