New Brunswick agriculture of the past
Agriculture, a traditional sector of the economy, strongly marked the history of New Brunswick. The challenges were many and progress came rather slowly, despite efforts in the individual regions. Colonial agriculture, a traditional, subsistence way of life, lasted up to World War II in some places.
In other places, clear signs of commercial farming appeared early in the 20th century, and several farm operators in New Brunswick have now made the move to industrial farming.
Settlement in the 19th century
Parcels of land were cultivated as soon as Europeans settled in the Maritimes and well before the Province of New Brunswick was founded. But it was in the mid-19th century that the provincial government, having been authorized to manage Crown lands, enacted land grant legislation. It intended to develop New Brunswick's farm economy and populate the provincial territory. That period marked the first settlement movement in the province.
In the mid-19th century, a prospective settler chose a parcel of land and filed an application with the Government of New Brunswick. Certain preliminary conditions had to be fulfilled for land ownership.
According to the 1868 Act to Facilitate the Settlement of the Province, a 100 acre parcel of land was granted on the request of a settler having no family, and 200 acres were granted if he had a family of two or more children. Settlers paid a certain sum of money for the future building of roads and bridges in their vicinity. Otherwise, they were obliged to help build them. Settlers had to be at least 18 years of age, not already own any land, and begin clearing the land within one month after the approved occupancy date. Upon fulfilling those conditions, they received a deed of temporary ownership.
Having received a deed of temporary ownership, a settler had to build a small house of 4.88 by 6.10 metres or more. That "house" was usually a shelter made of squared logs. It was necessary to live there and work at clearing the land in order to seed three acres between the tree stumps within the first year of occupancy.
For the next stage, namely, acquisition of the deed of ownership for the parcel, settlers had to cultivate at least 10 acres and live on the land at least three years. They could leave the land only at specific times of the year to fish and work in the lumber camps in winter. Once that set of conditions was fulfilled, the Crown Land Office gave the settler the title of ownership.
As is evident, it took years to become a landowner. During that unavoidable wait, there were many opportunities to lose one's partly cleared tract: the settler's lack of skill, discouragement at the amount of work required, the quality of the soil to be tilled, or the settler's departure for some other place. Crown land agents visited the settlers from time to time to see how settlement was coming along. Land-clearers abounded in New Brunswick in the early 20th century.
Settlement during the Depression
The second settlement movement was different and involved mainly the regions in the north of the province. It took place during the Great Depression starting in 1929 when New Brunswick was hit hard by a number of crises.
Settlement was the strategy that the government, families in need, and the unemployed chose in those days to handle practical matters such as putting food on the table and a roof over one's head. It was widely believed that anyone with land to work could eke out a living. That period was dubbed "return to the land."
An average of 440 tracts of land was granted each year from 1930 to 1939. The number peaked in 1933 at more than 600 parcels. The aim was to make the settlers economically self-sufficient. Although conditions were the same as in the 19th century, this time the government and the parishes provided a little occasional help. For example, new settlers were given seed stock and bonuses for clearing and tilling the land, as well as food and building materials at times. Occasionally, they were allowed to fell trees on their lot and sell them. Settlement 1930s style proved very difficult for them, nevertheless. As time passed, the provincial government improved the administrative framework for new settlers by hiring farm supervisors and forest rangers, who worked with those settlers.
The return to the land was a mitigated success: about 25% of the settlers acquired a deed of ownership between 1933 and 1943. It bears mentioning that much of the effort made could be crippled by the vagaries of nature, soil that was not always the best for cultivation, and ignorance about clearing techniques. Overall, the program did not provide economic self-sufficiency for settlers.
The results were not altogether negative, however. The settlement strategy of the 1930s opened up new regions and led to the foundation of villages such as Trout Brook in the Madawaska region, Allardville in Gloucester County, and Bronson in Queens. Settlers who stayed on their land built houses that could be lived in year-round, a school and a church, and produced their own food. Economically, both the settlers and the province benefited. The people who settled in the forest - the forest clearers - eventually
Until the mid-20th century, New Brunswick had many cottage farms on which farming was often complemented by some other activity such as fishing, logging, or mining. Those farms were small, self-sufficient, family-run cattle farming and dairy operations for the most part. The house, garden, buildings, small animal herds, tilled fields, and pastureland were the basics of those farms. Around the buildings, there were cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, as well as one or two horses or else oxen to do the work. On a subsistence cottage farm, the family's food came from the garden produce and the animals. The fields provided feed for the animals, which in turn helped fertilize the fields.
The harvests were the same everywhere in the province: hay, potatoes, and cereal grains such as oats, wheat, and buckwheat, turnips, and apples, depending on the size of the farm. The farmer chose the varieties of seed stock, sowing and reaping times, and storage set up.
The few farm tools of the era were wooden implements made by hand. Farmers were usually able to repair their tools and called on the blacksmith only when iron parts needed fixing. Imported farm implements were still rare in New Brunswick at the turn of the 20th century, and few farms had a tractor.
Farm products were traded locally for the most part. However, potatoes were grown just about everywhere in New Brunswick and sold on outside markets. Carleton and Victoria counties were strong export producers, as were Bouctouche and the surrounding area, which exported via Shediac.
During the 1920s, farmers insisted on being better informed and organized to develop progressive agriculture at an affordable cost using efficient methods based on scientific knowledge. The number of farms declined in favour of the industrial and urban sector, falling from 38,000 to 34,000 by 1931. On the other hand, experts observed that the average farm covered 38 acres, a 5% increase over previous years.
The United Farmers established a network of co ops for buying seed stock and equipment at the best possible price. New Brunswick farmers even took a political stance and reminded provincial leaders that they were the largest of all worker groups within the economy. The transition from cottage to commercial farming began in the 1920s.
In the mid-20th century, the province had an almost equal number of cottage and commercial farms. The shift to commercial farming involved farm consolidation, in which several small operations were joined to provide larger crop acreage. Those changes occurred mostly along the Saint John River Valley, the region with the best soil for cultivation, and in several places around the Bay of Fundy. The Saint-Quentin area also had high-quality soil.
During the period 1950-1980, 80% of New Brunswick's small farms disappeared. Farmers were encouraged to use factory fertilizer and grow produce for processing in order to wrest a share of the market. The chemical fertilizer plant in Belledune expanded, as did the market for French fried potatoes and frozen foods.
The new farms are monoculture operations needing specialized heavy equipment. Several farms in Carleton and Victoria counties, where potatoes are grown, are outstanding examples. With this type of farming, profits have to be increased, which means boosting output and monitoring product quality. This explains the importance of following specific rules regarding seed stock and fertilizers, watering methods, and growing times. Machinery that operates well on sprawling, mostly flat terrain does not perform as well in some cultivable areas.
The production of food for human and animal consumption, once the responsibility of many small farmers, is now handled by a small number of large operations. Few people look to farming for their income these days, but we do rely on it for our subsistence.
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COUTURIER, Jacques Paul and Phyllis E. LEBLANC, dir. Économie et société en Acadie 1850-1950, Moncton, Éditions d'Acadie, 1996
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