Across the Plains of North Middlesex

Across the Plains of North Middlesex


That the Province of Ontario possesses a plains country essentially similar in some respects to that of the great Prairie West, will come as a surprise to most readers, but a trip north from London on the Huron & Bruce branch of the Grand Trunk, or west from Stratford along the Port Huron line will bring the fact home with depressing clearness. There are many wide, level stretches of country in the Banner Province, but they are in most cases still dotted plentifully with small groves of woodland, and parcelled into homestead averaging in the neighborhood of a hundred acres or thereabouts. So, also, was the region of which we write, but a change of conditions set in some years ago, by which it has well-nigh been converted into cattle ranches. Cleared of nearly all its woodland, the landscape presents long vistas of level land, reaching away, with unobstructed view, mile upon mile of the railway. Except where the process of depopulation has progressed farthest, fine, comfortable, two-story, white-brick houses, with ample barns, dot the face of the land, though these are by no means so numerous nor so universally occupied as in the prosperous south-eastern corner of the county, where dairying holds sway. Farm after farm has been sold by its well-to-do owners, who have retired to the villages and towns, or in some cases have moved away to the West. The land is by no means forsaken, however, but is bought up by those who remain and thrown together into holdings of three, four, six and up to fifteen hundred acres. What proportion of this can be tilled by the owner, with the help, maybe, of a son or two, or, perhaps, in rare cases, of a hired man, is cropped, while steers graze the rest in veritable ranches, often with none but an outside boundary fence. With this system of utilization, only small acre returns are realized, but the labour is at a minimum, and the owners seem content with these moderate returns. The land is by no means going at sacrifice value, farms bringing around eighty and ninety dollars per acre. Intrinsically, the soil is worth it, for a finer, fatter, better-watered, nicer-lying and nicer-working clay-loam soil probably does not lie out of doors. At least, we have never seen more equally good land in one uninterrupted stretch.

What has brought about this state of affairs? Why has so much of this fine land reverted to steer pasture--its least productive use--while many less-favored sections are still quite thickly settled and carefully tilled? The question we propounded to the well-known stock-breeder, A. W. Smith, ex-M. P., with whom we enjoyed a pleasant drive, in company with the new District Representative of the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Whale, and whose delightful home at Maple Lodge we were presently to visit. Lack of labour was the keynote of his answer. But why did it affect this section so particularly? “Well,” he replied, “the people here were fairly well-to-do, and when help became so scarce, and they found that, to work their farms as they had been accustomed, it would be necessary almost to make slaves of themselves, they preferred to sell out and quit. Some went West, but many retired to village or town life. You see, they had sufficient means to do this, if they chose.” Taking North Middlesex, conditions have reached their worst pass in the Township of East Williams, where long lines of forsaken buildings may be seen falling into ruin, with only a resident here and there. There are many cases, however, in McGillivray and Biddulph where three or four farms have been thrown into one.

It seems a shame to see the process, for not only is it the country superb for general agriculture, but it was settled by a fine stock of people. The township of McGillivray and part of Biddulph, was largely settled by migrants from Markham and Scarboro, in York County, lured west by the age-long quest for land. East Williams was largely settled by Scotch, while London Township was occupied by immigrants from “the Border.”

It must not be inferred that North Middlesex is peculiar in this condition; considerable areas of Huron, Bruce and parts of Lambton are the same. One wonders where it will end. At present, the tendency towards concentration of areas seems unabated. That more might be made out of the land is indisputable, but the great cry is for help. Not only is it scarce, but, worse still, so uncertain. You’ve got it, and you haven’t got it. A farmer lays his plans to crop a certain acreage, and gets the seed sown, perhaps; then maybe his man leaves, he doesn’t know where to look for another, and has to do two men’s work himself. Next year he is likely to attempt only what he can do easily with his own hands. Mr. Smith, for instance, had only two men, instead of the three he would like to have, and , partly as a precaution against contingencies, makes it a point to seed down every acre of grain crop each year, so that he may be in a position to quit whenever occasion demands. Of course, this plan has the additional merit of being good for the land. Mr. Smith’s rotation, by the way, is a seven-year one of peas, wheat, hoed crop, barley, wheat seeded down and left two years in meadow. In addition to the rotated area is some permanent pasture.

Conspicuous for productiveness, as well as cleanness, even in the fertile township of McGillivray, is the 230-acre farm of Maple Lodge, where our camera was brought effectively into play among the Shorthorns and Leicesters for the future edification of our readers. So also of the broad, clean, well-ordered acres owned by John T. Gibson of Denfield, whose seventy-one years do not prevent him doing a hustling day’s work in the field, and whose uniformly typey and thrifty Shorthorns and Lincolns would delight the eye of any live-stock artist. Mr. Gibson and his son were turning by hand a very good first crop of alfalfa, while across the fence a conspicuous patch of tall, broad-leaved, dark-green oats, standing out in a large field of good grain, marked the place where an alfalfa meadow has been plowed up last year for corn.

These two farms, with their thrifty stock, lush pastures and luxuriant crops, stood out the features of a day’s trip, and would convince the most skeptical of the ultimate economy of a system of farming which involves the keeping of good stock and feeding practically all the produce on the land.


Celebrating 150 Years of Canadian Agriculture