To the Editor:
The 2022 Great Canadian Agriculture Quiz in a recent edition of The Review reminded me that people may not be all that aware of the importance of agriculture in the region – past and present – and how things have changed over the past century.
The 1921 Census of Canada has some fascinating statistics about Prescott and Russell, not the least of which being the diversity of crops grown in the area, and the amounts in which they were produced.
Here are some numbers from that census, and they may surprise you. Wherever possible, I have included statistics from 2015 (in the brackets) so that readers can note the differences between then and now:
Hay: 145,966 acres (53,780)
Oats: 89,928 acres (530)
Barley: 9,725 acres (2,959)
Feed corn: 9,409 acres (81,138)
Wheat: 6,184 acres
Potatoes: 3,599 acres
Buckwheat: 1,624 acres
Peas: 861 acres (6)
Corn for husking: 428 acres (105)
Beans: 134 acres (99,342)
Turnips: 122 acres
Rye: 93 acres
Flax: 35 acres
There are a lot of reasons accounting for the differences between past and present. For one thing, there were a number of local mills that could take in wheat and oats from local farmers (a good number of mills continued to operate well into the 20th century) to mill for flour or oatmeal.
Second, back in 1921, it may have been too expensive, for instance, to bring in potatoes from the Maritimes, so farmers grew enough for the local population. As well, technology has reached a point where farmers no longer have to plant peas in order to replenish nitrogen in the soil.
Whatever the reasons (and there are lots more than those presented here), farming a century ago was very different than it is now, and that might not be such a good thing.
We often hear calls for greater diversity in all sorts of things (employment, education, and the arts, etc.), and rightfully so. One area for which diversity is seen as most urgently needed is in agriculture. Growing a variety of crops, we are told, is good for the soil, and good for the local economy. More important, a diversity of locally-grown crops goes a long way in reducing greenhouse gases. Some organic farmers are taking this to heart, but when you drive through Eastern Ontario these days, you sure see a lot of monoculture.
One can only imagine what it must have been like driving through Prescott and Russell a century ago. I can’t help but think that it would have been a very interesting ride.