Beef has been part of northern Ontario agriculture for decades, but recently some bigger operations have been moving into the region — buying up land, targeting a specific slice of the beef market with an eye to make it grow in the north.

As George McGaffin walks through an old barn near Noelville, he surveys some of his 600 Black Angus cows that are feeding on grass — a diet McGaffin says will lead to healthier beef and, he hopes, a premium product.

McGaffin is a partner in the French River Cattle Company along with Andy Stronach, the son of auto-parts billionaire Frank Stronach.

'There are tremendous pockets of good land here.' —George McGaffin, French River Cattle Company

They've spent millions on thousands of acres of northern pasture in Noelville, Warren and Massey in the last few years.

"There are tremendous pockets of good land here," McGaffin said. "You just have to look beyond the trees and see what's behind them."

Adrian Verhoeven from the Sudbury area cattleman's association says big producers coming into the north will be good for smaller farms like his.

"It'll help bring an infrastructure back," he said. "You'll get more equipment dealers, more feed supply. It'll benefit everyone in the long term."

Case for bigger slaughterhouse

BC-based Blue Goose Farms, which set up on Manitoulin Island in the past year, also moved into the region and bought up thousands of acres in grazing land

CEO David Fraser said it was the islander attitude — and not the cheap land — that drew him to Manitoulin.

"I think price is a function of any business, but we're in Manitoulin because of its agricultural history and the people," he said.

To help process the livestock, there are three small abbatoirs in the region — in Warren, Massey and one about to open on Manitoulin. But if the industry continues to grow in the north, McGaffin said he thinks there's a case to be made for a big, multi-million-dollar slaughterhouse in the region, which would create dozens of local jobs.