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International Plowing Match puts spotlight on West Nipissing's agricultural sector

Historical farming community proud to share its local culture

If you're trying to track down Daniel Olivier at the International Plowing Match and Rural Expo this weekend, you might have to wait in line.

The fifth-generation farmer, who owns Ferme Longvallon Inc. in Verner, is currently hosting close to 80,000 people in his backyard. 

It was 1968 when Olivier attended his first plowing match as an 11-year-old boy. At the time, he never imagined that he would one day play host to one. 

The 2019 International Plowing Match and Rural Expo kicked off Sept. 17 and continues until Sept. 21.

The event is a five-day celebration of agriculture and rural living, this year showcasing the culture and historical significance of the agricultural industry in the West Nipissing district, a largely rural municipality located on Highway 17 between Sudbury and North Bay.

More than 800 acres of farmland have been transformed into a sprawling and powered tented city, competitive plowing fields, and a fully-serviced RV park. There are over 500 exhibitors and food vendors present at the event and four stages featuring live entertainment. 

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The IPM held its first gathering 102 years ago on the site of Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. Since then, it has transformed from a simple plowing competition to an event expected to draw a crowd from across North America. 

This year is only the second time in its history that the event is being held north of Barrie. Ten years ago, the IPM was held in Earlton, about two hours north of North Bay. 

Verner is 16 kilometres west of Sturgeon Falls. The predominantly francophone community is well known for being the agricultural hub of the area. Many local farmers have ancestors who migrated from Quebec in the early 1890s when the government was giving land to anyone who could cultivate it. During the same period, immigrants from Europe also started to buy plots. 

Olivier's father, who was an immigrant from France, took advantage of the government's post-war policies to get into the farming.

His operation, Longvallon Farm, has been in the family for five going on six generations. 

His cash crop hay farm is the only ag operation in Ontario that uses organic fertilizer recycled from human waste. He sends his crop as far north as Moosonee and as far south as Florida. 

“The raison d'etre of the agricultural community in Verner during the 30s, 40s, and 50s was to supply milk to Inco in Sudbury,” said Olivier. “The region was 99 per cent dairy farming at the time.” 

He explained that the Northern mining community was experiencing problems with their milk supply. 

“If you put milk on a train in the summer, it is spoiled by the time it gets to Sudbury. In the winter, it freezes.” 

Neil Fox, board chair for this year's event, IPM, is excited to share the local culture and history of the area. 

“Rural living and our lifestyle goes hand-in-hand with hard work and problem-solving skills,” he said.

“We look to solve problems and we look to overcome anything that gets in our way. People from the agricultural community are very good at that. I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work with third and fourth-generation farmers who have taught me a thing or two over the last two-and-a-half years about business.” 

The local economic benefits of hosting the event are obvious. Plowing Match visitors are expected to have an estimated impact of between $20 million to $25 million.

“I think the short-term [impact] is easily viewed by the amount of sales that this will bring to our local economy,” said Sylvain Bilodeau, treasurer of the West Nipissing Chamber of Commerce.

“We hope in the long-term people from outside West Nipissing will see the area as a destination. Maybe a destination to retire, to move to, and that will help our local businesses to grow also.” 

According to Sheila Marshall, the president of the Ontario Plowman's Association, there is also a legacy left at the end of each competition. 

“Once everything is done and all the bills are paid, then we take that money and leave it in the community and we ask the community how they would like to use it.” 

The amount of money generated varies from year to year, but it's often earmarked to support local services. 

The future of the West Nipissing agricultural is bright. From local innovation to families migrating to the area, organizers say there are opportunities in the sector. 

Bilodeau finds that young families, driven by a desire to return to their roots and adopt a cleaner lifestyle, are increasingly migrating to the region from bigger cities. 

One thing is for sure: this year's Plowing Match will put the small community of Verner on the map.