EASTERN ONTARIO: God does not create more land, but farmers do. . . by clean cut

Many farmers are reclaiming farmland that has fallen into disuse and say it is worth it.

Clearcutting to increase farmland offsets creeping concrete urban development

Nelson Zandbergen
Farmers Forum

EASTERN ONTARIO — God no longer creates the earth, but farmers do. They increase cropland in the five easternmost counties of Ontario, led by Prescott-Russell. These two counties increased cropland by 10.3% between 2011 and 2021.

While urban development has swallowed up some farmland in eastern Ontario, the region has as much cropland in production — about 2.2 million acres — as it did 10 years ago, according to the latest figures. from Statistics Canada. It is thanks to the individual decisions of countless farmers who naturally reacted to market forces to open up replacement acreage through clearcutting.

Annuity producer Bill Byker of Glen Stewart is a good example.

Between 2000 and 2010, Byker brought back into production 100 acres of long-unused fields that had grown in the bush of his native farm north of Iroquois. He followed that up in 2012 with his purchase and four-year rehabilitation of a 235-acre parcel just outside Morrisburg. Both projects involved the clear-cutting of what was previously logged and cultivated land. The works included the removal of old fences and the installation of an underground drainage system.

“I call it farmland reclamation,” says Byker, who estimates his investment paid for itself in four to five years on the original farm and about seven years on the other property.

“When crop prices in the early 2000s were $90 or $100 a tonne, it just wouldn’t have made sense,” he says.

Today, with high commodity prices and high prices for existing productive farmland, “it makes sense to look at land that may be marginal and how can we reclaim it and put it back into agriculture ?” he remarks.

The member of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario also feels “a responsibility to optimize the land we are stewards of,” especially at a time when the world needs more food production.

Byker says his contractor harvested the wood from Morrisburg and downsized much of it to make particle board. Some of the wood was also shipped whole to the United States. This clearing method took twice as long as the traditional slash and burn method, but due to the proximity to the village, “we didn’t want to burn for two years,” he said. said.

It also meant a lot to Byker to see the wood used rather than wasted, he says. After all, why was the earth ever allowed to grow into trees in the first place?

Byker explains that such patches of otherwise good or decent farmland fell into disuse due to drainage problems that became evident when farmers switched from horses to heavier tractors.

“The economy didn’t justify using it for farmland,” he says. “Now the economy around agriculture has improved and the drainage systems have improved.”

He adds, “They learned with recently reclaimed land to get closer to underground drainage lines.”

Even with this advantage, the Morrisburg plot took seven years to reach expected yield levels as soil nutrients were gradually balanced for soybean and corn production.

According to Byker, reclaiming farmland also goes hand in hand with creating larger fields and the unsung environmental benefit of reduced emissions. Fewer fences means fewer equipment turns and “much less” fuel consumed, he explains. Where his two recent projects were originally cut up into dozens of old fields of 5 or 6 acres each, they are now just two measuring hundreds of acres each.

In South Mountain, dairy farmer Yann Bossel says he cleared 80 acres of bushland – previously farmland – in the past year. He expects 20 acres to be ready for rye seeding this fall. The rest will go into production in 2023.

It’s cheaper for a farmer to spend about $4,000 per acre to clear heavy bush he already owns — plus an additional $1,200 to $2,000 for tile drainage — than to buy productive farmland in upstream for at least $15,000 per acre, says Bossel. “Economics is easy.”

In addition to being cheaper than buying someone else’s existing farmland, it can deduct the cost of land clearing as a business improvement cost.

A farm must grow, like any business, adds this father of four young children. “If you’re not growing at the rate of inflation, you’re actually dying of attrition. Since we have a young family coming up, we have more bills and need to look at ways to become more efficient and spread our costs over larger areas. »

Growth is simply part of a “sustainable operation,” he adds. “Someone with 300 acres or 1,000 acres or 2,000 acres can search for opportunities very differently than someone with 100 acres.”

According to Bossel: “Economies of scale and critical mass are very important elements of success.”

Like Byker, Bossel says his land-clearing contractor harvested the timber, which was shipped to Thurso, Que., and processed into chips. The end product is marketed as a green energy source, he says.

Both Bossel and Byker are residents of Dundas County, one of the regions in Eastern Ontario that increased its cropped area by 9.3% between 2011 and 2021. Tree cover in Dundas is still significantly higher than it was in the 1940s, notes Bossel.

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