Coming from the west, it’s unexpected. You pass out of the Prairies just east of Winnipeg, then drive through mile after mile of rocks, trees and water — the typical geography of the Canadian Shield.
But somewhere east of Kenora, something begins to happen… small meadows start to appear, finally broadening out and breaking up the forest.
Then the fenced pastures begin to appear, here and there with cattle dotting them.
More often, though, they’re empty, lush, and ignored.
This is the “Dryden Clay Plain” as it was called in a 1944 Ontario Soil Survey, comprising mainly a clay sedimentary deposit from the glacial Lake Agassiz, with the small community of Oxdrift as its hub and stretching towards and even past Dryden.
It’s not a big pocket. There are at most about 150,000 acres of land suited to agriculture, depending on how you classify the various parts of the region, but the area has a long agricultural history, having originally been settled in the late 1800s as a farming community. Local lore has it that then-Ontario minister of agriculture John Dryden was inspired to establish an experimental farm in the area after spotting wild clover when his train stopped to take on water.
Today Dryden is primarily thought of as a mill town, however, with a local pulp mill and a long history of paper production. The surrounding region has also become a bit of a sportsman’s paradise as well, with countless fishing lodges dotting local lakes and with Fridays seeing the highways clogged with American anglers and hunters during the seasons.
What it’s not viewed as is an area for agriculture. Sure, a few locals would challenge that statement, but the reality remains. This is farmland almost without farmers, slowly returning to bush and being bought up by foreign hunters who find it affordable and who visit just a few times a year.
One farmer who isn’t ready to throw in the towel yet is Roger Griffiths.
Griffiths has a 300-cow beef operation near Oxdrift, where he operates on 1,800 acres he owns and another 1,000 or so acres of what he terms “underutilized” land nearby. It is, he admits, probably a situation a lot of other farmers from areas where land values have spiked would have trouble understanding.
“We have a lot of land that’s available to us,” Griffiths says. “More than I want. At this point in the cattle cycle, I’m just not looking to invest and expand.”
It’s not an entirely unexpected situation, he goes on to explain. The land isn’t great; it’s really best suited for growing grass and running livestock. Back in the day, local producers grew a lot of clover seed for export but that business is long gone, moved to other areas. Here and there some grew grain, tempted by the high prices of the 1970s, but the fragile clay soils just won’t take that kind of treatment for long, he says.
“You don’t want to grow crops here, I know people that have tried,” Griffiths says. “You can get a tonne, tonne-and-a-half of barley or oats off our fields. Yeah, you could do it — but if you start working this grey wooded soil on a regular basis, you get cinder blocks. It’s fragile. You have to be careful with it.”
The lone exception that might work is to very occasionally — maybe a five-year or longer rotation — grow feed grains for a mixed operation that’s producing something like hogs or chickens.
Griffiths also says the climate isn’t great for other crops, with a short, cool, growing season that usually garners somewhere between 1900 and 2100 corn heat units, and a frost-free period that hovers around 95 days.
“This is definitely livestock country,” Griffiths says.
Finding qualified help can be a bit of a problem, Griffiths agrees, and during our discussion he notes he is coming close to the end of the local farm kids. This lack of available help actually underlines a long-standing problem for agriculture in the area, with an abundance of other opportunities that began years ago with the pulp mill’s arrival in Dryden, and has actually resulted in more than one farming family taking a different path over the years since the end of the Second World War.
“The mill dragged everyone in — big wages, 40 hours a week… why wouldn’t you take it instead of just having a quarter section and struggling?” Griffiths asks.
Paul and Maria Wildhaber say the lack of good help played a big role in their recent re-think of their business. Paul’s dad originally ran their operation, Milkwell Farm, as a dairy, and Paul took it over in 1997. But a busy family life, including two boys and a girl with special needs, made them question the demands of twice-daily milking, especially after a few disappointing attempts at meeting the labour crunch.
“You’d work a week to get everything lined up to go to a doctor’s appointment, then have to rush back here right away, and it felt like you’d be a week getting caught back up,” Paul says while we talk in his machine shop.
These days, the Wildhabers are raising and finishing beef, primarily for the local market, using a combination of pasture and silage. They market by the side or by the piece through outlets like a local co-operative and a thriving farmers’ market.
“In the end the price was right to sell the quota, and the dairy industry was in decline around here — there were only three left,” Wildhaber says.
Down South, he explains — and you can hear the capitalization — there are simpler ways to run a dairy, built around corn rations.
“Here you have to do it all with grass, and that’s a lot of work,” he says.
These days Paul and Maria are feeding only about 50 cows, after taking advantage of the hot cattle market to cull their herd of older animals and lesser genetics at a profit. Now they’re finishing about 50 head of calves and looking at rebuilding later, if cattle prices fall in coming years.
“Wait until it’s cheap if you want to get bigger,” Wildhaber says with a chuckle.
Meantime they’re primarily concentrating on maintaining their local customer base for freezer beef, something that’s taken time to develop. Right now it’s a lot of work for what in this market amounts to the same money, but both of the Wildhabers say sticking with it seems the best long-term strategy.
“We don’t advertise, it’s basically through the farmers’ market and word of mouth,” Maria explains. “They know we’re here now, but it takes time.”
If they turned their back on it now they’d have disappointed customers and a big challenge rebuilding when the cattle cycle inevitably turns, Paul says.
“Right now I could ship to the auction and almost get the same, but if prices drop then you have to go back and take time building up another customer base,” he says. “This way you were making better money two years ago, now you’re about even, maybe in two years you’ll make a lot more again.”
Room to grow
At one point during our conversation the Wildhabers and Mel Fisher, a local agricultural proponent who’s acting as our local guide, begin to discuss how very few farmers are left, and they try to sort out who might be the next farmer who might compete for land. Eventually they decide it’s probably someone from the Oxdrift area, across the river and miles away.
I ask if this means there might be an opportunity here for young farmers, something Maria agrees with.
“There’s lots of land around here,” she says.
Paul goes further, saying in a lot of cases the land is probably available as close to free as you’ll ever find it. Non-farming landowners are growing increasingly concerned about what happens to fields in this part of the world when they’re not farmed.
“There’s lots of rental land around you could have basically for free — people would just be glad you cut it,” Paul says.
A typical deal might see a renter pay a nominal rent of something like $50 or $100 to cut, or perhaps giving a landlord with horses a few hay bales, he says.
“Otherwise all those fields are growing into bush, and you’ll never be able to use them again,” Paul says. “I bet every year we get a call, ‘I’ve got 30 acres close by.’ And I have to say ‘No, thanks.’ There’s just nobody around.”
This is a very real concern for the area, which has already seen its agricultural land base shrinking over time. Just before the Second World War there were about 50,000 acres of land being used for farming and ranching. Today there’s something less than 30,000 acres, and really, only a small portion of that remains in production.
Even Griffiths, the area’s largest cow-calf operator by far, says he wouldn’t be upset to see a small handful of operations the same size as his move into the area. He says it will be some time before land becomes a limiting factor, and having more operations could mean better local availability of supplies or at the very least more opportunities to minimize shipping costs.
However, Griffiths says anyone considering it needs to realize exactly what they’re getting themselves into.
“We’re four hours from supplies here,” Griffiths says. “You just get used to it. I get used to a $25 to $30 a tonne freight basis on everything I bring in.”
He also says you get used to bringing a lot in, and thinking in terms of getting your annual supply laid in.
“When I go to Winnipeg, I say I should have a trailer, because my three-quarter ton is full coming back,” Griffiths says. “I get things like my annual supply of filters and my barrels of oil and all that — it’s just what I have to do. All my wear parts like knives for the disc mower as well, and things like always having spare belts for my round baler. I have to carry more parts inventory out here. If I had a dealer half an hour away, I’d just drive there and let them inventory my parts.”
Griffiths adds that the few farmers who remain in the area accept that this is part of life and they’re always willing to lend a hand, or a belt or bolt.
“I think we just have to help each other out a bit more because we all know it could be us that’s next,” he says.
Sometimes, even cheap land is hard to finance.
Some young, potential farmers in the area say it’s a problem, especially without an established operation, to access capital to buy the home place they need because lenders aren’t interested in the value of the land, but will only loan to the value of the yard and house that might be present.
That’s a reality, but Paul Wildhaber says it’s even harder in other areas like southern Ontario where he has friends farming in areas with $10,000-an-acre land prices.
“There it’s really hard for young people to get started,” he says. “If you can’t inherit the land, you simply can’t get started. You could come here and buy land, and you don’t even have to buy that much, because there is so much around that you could probably just use for symbolic rent — virtually free.”
In the Dryden area, he can see a scenario where a young person could move up and buy a house with a little land, situated in an area with lots of available land that’s not being worked, and make a start by working with those local landowners.
“They’d probably be more than happy to let you work it,” he says.
One young couple that’s doing exactly that is Evan and Linda Debney. They’re running a modest cow-calf herd on a few of their own acres and other pasture in the area by private arrangement with the landowners. Both work off-farm, and Evan is the president of the Kenora chapter of the Beef Farmers of Ontario — a spot that he finds a bit surprising considering his thoughts just a few years ago.
“I always swore I’d never come back to northwestern Ontario,” he admits. “I went to college in Alberta, but to start there — land is $3,000 an acre. You can buy a lot of land here for $3,000 — more than just an acre, that’s for sure. There are opportunities here, but they’re not easy.”
Those opportunities largely exist because of the remorseless demographics of farming in the region, Evan adds, noting that each year there are two or three more farmers getting out of the game, and there aren’t the same number looking to get in or to take an operation over, though he notes a couple of young locals have left to attend agriculture college.
“Who can say what the odds are of them coming back to area,” wonders Linda. “It depends what they have to come back to, whether there’s a farm they think they can take over. To start out all on their own, it’s a pricey business.”
Evan says part of the solution for them has been his off-farm job, working for Egli’s, a sheep products company started by a local farming family that maintains a small livestock component.
“If I didn’t work for them, I don’t think we would farm,” Evan says. “We’re able to network our equipment and make it more efficient for both of us. Not many people with 50 cows could afford half a million dollars worth of equipment, and the truth is half a million dollars isn’t even that much equipment these days.”
Also making life difficult for the new entrant is the high cost of good beef animals, after a prolonged run of trade problems and low prices.
“These days prices for the beef industry are close to what they are for dairy,” Evan says.
These difficulties aside, both of the Debneys say the life they’re making on the farm works for their young family, and they’re still both hopeful that agriculture in the region will turn around.
“It will come. But I’m not sure if it will come in my lifetime. More people, that will mean the need for more food,” Evan says.
Labour of love
Clayton Schneider makes it clear right off the bat that he’s not really a farmer. He’s a recently retired veterinarian who was born and raised and who worked his whole career in the area, leaving only to go to school.
Over the years he’s dabbled in a wide range of interests including a competitive sled dog team. But these days, following the sale of his practice, he’s turned his interest, energy and some money to another project — rejuvenating pasture.
As he takes us on a tour of his place, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s taken on this challenge for non-economic reasons, pointing out this piece of ground, then that one and making clear, without actually saying so, that what he’s really engaged in is a labour of love.
“This was my Dad’s place,” he says, then points down the road a bit. “And that was my uncle’s.”
He does what he does, in no small part, to pay tribute to that generation of farmer, saying it would feel wrong to see the land go back to bush and their legacy to be forgotten.
Jumping into his truck he takes us out to see his cow herd and have a look at the clearing that’s going on. There’s a pile of logs in one corner of the pasture and off in the distance the rumble of of heavy equipment.
“It just starts to creep in from the bush,” Schneider explains. “It doesn’t take long at all, if you’re not using it.”
That in a nutshell is the race against time that local landowners find themselves in — there’s little call for agricultural land among the locals, though there are a few newbies interested in small-scale production, and almost no one in the wider agricultural industry knows this place exists.
Among the older generation, the greatest and more recurring concern is that the work of the pioneers in the area is beginning to come to naught, forgotten. Our guide Mel Fisher probably puts it best during one of our drives through the region between farm operations, noting that one homestead is in the process of being planted back to trees, something that would no doubt have upset the original pioneer who cleared it.
“Right now,” Fisher tells me, “he and his team of horses are probably rolling over in their graves.”