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Family farms: Ontario's sweet harvest in 1977

Whether they raise wheat, peaches, beef or potatoes, the Canadians who run our family farms have sometimes struggled to keep pace with the demand for cheap, abundant food. Threats to the family farm have ranged from the high cost of land and crippling interest rates to corporate competition and encroaching cities. Some farmers have adapted and thrived, but for others the strain has proven too much. CBC Archives looks at the evolving family farm.

"My grandfather was the watermelon king," says Charlie Huffman, describing the history of his family's farm on the fertile soil of Essex County, Ont. Through steady expansion the Huffman farm has grown to provide a living for Charlie's son Carl and his family. In this CBC Television clip, Carl describes his efforts to preserve the farm for his children. Farming is no way to get rich, says Carl, but his goal is simpler than that: "We want to farm." 
• There is no official government definition of what constitutes a family farm.

• The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines "family farm" as "a farm that is owned and operated by a family, esp. one that has been handed down from one generation to another."

• Canada's National Farmers Union believes the family farm is "the most appropriate and efficient means of agricultural production."

• "Census farm" is the term used by Statistics Canada to designate an agricultural operation growing at least one of the following types of items for sale: crops, poultry, livestock, animal products or other products such as maple syrup.

• In 1996 there were 2,109 census farms in Essex County.

• Essex County boasts the highest concentration of greenhouses in Canada.

• In 2001 there were over 40 different crops growing commercially in Essex County.

• Much of the labour on farms in Essex County and other agricultural regions in Canada is now done by migrant workers from Mexico, the Barbados and Jamaica.

• In 2005 an estimated 18,000 such labourers were in Canada, working up to 60 hours per week. Most were paid scarcely more than minimum wage, and they were prohibited from forming unions.

• Essex County is on a peninsula located on the southwestern tip of Ontario. The county includes Point Pelee and Pelee Island, the southernmost point in Canada.

• Due to its extraordinary flatness, varying soil types, mild climate and surrounding water, the region makes excellent farmland.

• An aboriginal tribe called the Attiwandaronks is thought to have practised a basic form of agriculture in the region beginning around 900 AD.

• Essex County and the area surrounding present-day Windsor and Detroit was populated by French settlers in the mid-18th century. But it wasn't until the early 19th century that great numbers of people began to farm there. Most were immigrants from Britain — the region had since passed into British hands — and some were Americans.

• Tobacco was among the earliest crops grown in Essex County. Farmers grew it for their own use and as a cash crop which was exported to Montreal, Kingston and New Orleans.

• Apple, peach and pear trees were planted for local domestic use, and later came to be grown commercially. Grapes were introduced as a commercial crop in the 1860s but were supplanted by tobacco when it became much more lucrative in the 1920s.

Medium: Television
Program: CBC Television Special
Broadcast Date: Jan. 23, 1977
Guest(s): Charlie Huffman, Carl Huffman, Leslie Huffman
Duration: 9:46

Last updated: August 24, 2012

Page consulted on January 24, 2014

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