Census shows agriculture in decline, but northern farmers see golden age ahead

Despite gloomy numbers from the latest census, northern Ontario farmers see sunny days ahead for agriculture in the region.

Census shows there are only 270 farmers under 35 in northern Ontario. Meet two of them

The 2016 census shows that agriculture in northern Ontario is shrinking, but the people who work the land tell a different story. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Chris Regele has discovered he doesn't look like a farmer.

"A new guy drops seed off and says 'Is the owner around?' and 'I say, yeah that's me.' I guess they don't see it that often," the 27-year-old said.

Regele was just 21 when he and his wife bought a dairy operation near Earlton, Ont. — not too far from his father's farm — and he doesn't see too many other 20-somethings driving tractors.

The average northern farmer is about 55, but Regele thinks that could soon change.

Temiskaming is one of the only parts of the north where more land is being farmed than five years ago, with about 2,000 more acres being used to grow food.

Regele, whose own father moved north to be a farmer in 2003, credits government grants being made available for the clearing of land and installation of tile drainage, which is helping to attract producers being priced out of the business in southern Ontario.

He said some are young people looking to get started in farming and some are Mennonites looking to continue their traditional lifestyle away from the sprawl of the south.

Eric Blondin runs Three Forks Farms in Warren and sells his vegetables at farmers markets in Sudbury and North Bay. (Facebook)

Agriculture is also growing in the outskirts of Greater Sudbury, with 1,200 more acres becoming farmland in the last five years.

Eric Blondin, 30, who runs Three Forks Farms near Warren, counts himself as part of the local food movement — people who didn't grow up on a farm, got interested in the business and who now supply vegetables to the growing number of farmers markets in the region.

"Just wanted to know where their food comes from and then wanted to become farmers. There's definitely a shift that has occurred," he said.

A new program called Beef North from the Beef Producers Association of Ontario is trying to get ranchers to leave the crowded south for the cheap pastures of the north. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

That shift is seeing producers move from livestock to the more lucrative cash crops of soy beans and grains, said Matt Bowman, a cattle farmer near the village of Thornloe in the Temiskaming district and president of the Ontario Beef Producers Association.

His group is actively trying to recruit cattle operators in southern Ontario to move north where there are cheaper pastures with a program called Beef North.

Despite the gloomy census numbers, the 52-year-old believes a golden age for northern agriculture is on the horizon.

​"Twenty-five or 30 years from now we're going to have to feed the world somehow and if cities continue to grow in southern Ontario they're going to be looking to northern Ontario to provide more food all the time," said Bowman.


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