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Project seeks to grow Northern agriculture

Claybelt Agricultural Project aims to debunk myths about farming in the North

There is good dirt in northeastern Ontario.

Good enough for a special project to explore ways of enhancing farm production in the region.

At its July regular meeting, Timmins council received an update on the Claybelt Agricultural Project. Jessica Davies, project lead for the Commerce Management Group, which is behind the initiative, made the presentation to council.

“The Claybelt Region has a lot of untapped potential when it comes to agriculture,” Davies said. “The Northeast Community Network put forth an agriculture project as an initiative to establish agriculture as a third pillar in our region’s economy, along with mining and forestry.”

The study region includes municipalities along the Highway 11 corridor, including Timmins and Matheson, all the way north to Hearst.

She said boosting agriculture would help diversify the area’s economy.

“There’s a belief our region is too cold to have a booming agriculture industry, but that’s not true,” Davies said. “We know that’s not true through scientific studies, but more importantly through the practising farmers in the region and the success that they have had.

“If we can be more successful in agriculture, it gives way to a lot of other opportunities, including improved food security, job creation and retention, as well as an improved economic capacity.”

There is enough suitable land to help grow agriculture in the region.

“In 2008, there was a study to quantify the agricultural land in the area,” she said. “We found that just in private land there was over 400,000 hectares of farmable land, which is over one million acres.

“To give you a little bit of context, that is nearly the size of the state of Delaware. In a 2017 census of agriculture, Delaware had 2,302 farms that produced $1.5 billion in agricultural sales. That’s a lot of capacity for that land and we might be able to capitalize on that capacity.”

It is hoped farming will make a comeback in the area with the right initiatives in place.

“Agriculture peaked in the region in 1951, but a lot of that was pushed out through higher paying mining jobs,” Davies said. “Over the last 50 years, climate change has improved our growing season and will continue to do so.”

She also debunked some myths about farming:

• on contributing to climate change: Agriculture is one of the few industries that can become not only carbon neutral but potentially carbon negative through a process of capturing carbon in the soil and vegetation;

• on corporations owning most farmland: 97 per cent of Canada’s farms are family owned and operated;

• on the region not having the climate for farming: Summer temperatures are similar to southern Ontario. By comparing the summer temperatures between Kapuskasing and Guelph, the difference is less than 3 degrees Celsius.

There has been a lot of research conducted already and work continues to be done.

“We have a long list of research tasks that we’ve been tackling, creating a catalogue to help inform us with our decisions,” Davies said. “We’ve also had preliminary dialogue and conversations with government officials as well as stakeholders. A lot of the discussions have been about what is possible and what isn’t.”

She went on to outline the work remaining to be done on the project and the expected timeframe.

“We’ve been working on the municipality presentations,” she said. “At the same time, we’ve been having conversations with some of the stakeholders, including working farmers in the region. We’ve formalized a working concept mostly. We’re mostly there, we just have a few things to work out.

“From that point we’ll be able to present our concept. The plan will be created and finalized by the new year. Then after that is the implementation process.”

Coun. Cory Robin asked about current farm operations and what the end goal was for the project.

“You mentioned practising farmers, what type of products are they having success with in the North?” Robin asked.

“At the end of the day, what are we looking for? Are we looking to entice farmers from down south to come and buy land and farm up here? Is that the direction we’re going with that?”

Davies said there is still research ongoing into what crops would be most successful.

‘There is a variety of what people are having success with,” she said. “But from my understanding the best success are with seeds that have been encapsulated. I think there is a broad range that can be successful, and we haven’t really tapped into that yet.”

She said one possible way to encourage agricultural growth is to have blocks of farm land available.

“There’s a lot of options. One of the main working concepts we’re working for now is block assembly,” Davies said. “A lot of the issues that we hear from farmers is that they want to expand or they want to establish by getting large enough blocks (of land) to have a profitable farm, and enough acreage, is difficult. If we were able to assemble the blocks, then it would be just up to the free market on who’s going to purchase those blocks.

“Maybe they’re coming from Western Canada or southern Ontario. Maybe there are some people who are interested it in are already in the area to purchase some of it. It’s really not for us to say. This is one of our ideas: we make the blocks available and advertise that the area is pro-agriculture and we’ve set up these things to make it an inviting atmosphere.”

Coun. Michelle Boileau asked if the project was looking at the potential for industrial spinoffs from agriculture.

“Will there be a component that will look at the potential of not only the cultivation of primary resources but also the production of food in the area?” she asked.

Davies said it is an important part of the overall picture.

“That is one of the objectives of the project, not only the farming but how can we make sure that we retain that economic capacity,” she said. “Some of that capacity is what kind of infrastructure can we develop that will keep some of the production locally instead of it being shipped elsewhere.”

Deputy Mayor Kristin Murray said the prospect of increased agriculture in the region is exciting.

“A lot of people think about farming here, and she covered it in her presentation; we might be a colder climate but there are certain things that are very versatile and can be grown in our area,” she said. “We have a lot of land. So, why not put some of that to use. I think food sovereignty is so important, and I think about those components as well.

“It’s very exciting. I know they’ve been doing a lot of work and I can’t wait to hear their next steps and what’s going to happen in the future.”

— TimminsToday