Monday, August 4, 2014

Will $3.50 Corn Cool the Bruce County Land Grab?

Cattle graze in the rolling hills of the former Elderslie Township in Bruce County.
An old corral sits vacant in a pasture abandoned for corn, still waiting to be harvested this spring.
In a county where a young Aggie might get chuckled at by topsoil-rich neighbours in southern Ontario, the geologically challenged fields of Bruce County were once the domain of countless bovine creatures. Dubbed "Ontario's cattle country", the rolling hills, scrubby fence lines and tree-spattered pastures were dotted with deep black, rich red, rusty brown, and dirty white cows and calves. Every breed imaginable to a young 4-Her could be found roaming the hillsides.

After BSE wiped out much of the market in 2003, the subsequent run up in commodity prices in 2008 led to a landscape transformation. As herds began to dwindle, traditional cattle producers turned their pasture land over and planted corn. While land prices soared "south of 86", the "north" offered reasonably priced land with solid potential, causing the land wars to heat up here too. Where the competition was once maybe a neighbour, more and more cash croppers from the south are expanding into the central area of the county. While others, seeing the potential to earn a small fortune, are buying pasture farms, clearing them and reselling them. "Flip this field" is in full swing.

The latest dip in the commodities is sure to cool the market a little. Especially, in "the Bruce" where 200 bu/acre corn is more a record than the norm and there are still some cattle around to distract those who leaned heavily on corn and soybeans in recent years. It does lead me to wonder; when the market rebounds, how long before Ontario's 'natural escape' is cultivated under almost completely? 

To be fully transparent, my family is equally profiting, cleaning up our own land and recent acquisitions to make room for yellow gold. Canada needs new young farmers, and in order to make a living today in this business, some scale and the accompanying efficiencies are critical. The time, labour and investment required to clear new fields still outweighs skyrocketing land rent. But cropping takes just as heavy toll on the soil here as it does in any area, so my family is increasingly focusing on soil health to sustainably maximize fertility. 

With the completion of our new dairy barn, next spring we will have composted manure, which will add valuable humus to our fields rather than just organic matter and nitrogen in traditional manure. Hopefully we will also be able to graze our cows next summer. In this part of the world, the symbiotic relationship between cattle and crops is one we understood long before rotational grazing was ‘au du jour’. It yields environmental and production benefits, and for me serves as a constant reminder of our interconnectedness, something I sometimes think agriculture loses sight of in pursuit of the bottom line.  

Visitors are still awed by the vast amounts of untouched land, and without an urban centre, a variety of thriving, and diverse ag businesses compliment Bruce County’s tourism sector to keep the economy turning. When other areas are boasting protection of their grasslands and sustainable beef, does turning this marginal land over for corn make the most economic sense? 

I can’t help but feel a little sad everytime I see another unmistakable mountain of tangled tree roots, hawthorns, and rocks spring up. The market might be telling us to plant 'fencerow to fencerow’, but is this the most sustainable option? Maybe we need to keep a few of those fencerows.

Mountains of brush among land still to be cleared.
A neighbour's pasture after clearing and tiling for soybeans.
 A hillside cleared of shrubs, trees and rocks makes for tempting, yet somewhat treacherous, cropland.
The high-hoe is a familiar sight now in many fields around Ontario including Bruce County.
"Big Bruce", the symbol of the county's once dominant livestock sector still greets west-bound visitors on Highway 21.