Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Agricultural Expansion in Northern Alberta

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Agricultural Expansion in Northern Alberta

Article excerpt

As the twenty-first century begins, agricultural expansion in Canada's north is assuredly not at an end. In the lower Peace River country of northern Alberta, 500 miles toward the Arctic Circle from Edmonton, families are busy clearing land and creating farms on the fringes of existing settlement (Figure i). Such activity is part of a process begun in the late 1970s, when the Alberta provincial government, in response to residents' demands, made available to beginning farmers better than 50,000 acres of raw land southwest of the small agricultural service center of La Crete. In the early 1980s, thousands of acres of forest were cleared and burned annually in preparation for crop production. Although the pace has eased, the process continues. Indeed, prospective farmers are demanding yet more land, but the government, citing economic and environmental concerns, is reluctant to open additional tracts.

What is taking place in Alberta's north is unique. Elsewhere in North America, farmers are giving up as commodity prices sink below levels necessary for small family operators to make a living (Economist 1999; Gorelick 2000; Lilliston and Ritchie 2000). In light of these conditions and the pervasive fact of farm abandonment at other fronts of western Canada's forest--farmland interface, it is astonishing that people in this northern region have established new farms and are urging the government to make additional land available (Vanderhill 1971,1982). I examine the forces that have contributed to agricultural expansion southwest of La Crete, describe the remarkable transformation of this area, and assess the prospects for future development. A critical element of this process, in the past, at present, and in the future, are the cultural values of the area's Mennonite people, today numbering some 6,000, who account for the vast majority of the population in and around La Crete.

The Peace River region has been called Canada's "last agricultural frontier." It was the southernmost part of the district that first attracted large numbers of settlers, encouraged by railroad building in the second decade of the twentieth century (Dawson 1934). The northern portion was much slower to develop. Some settlers penetrated the area via riverboat before 1930, but numbers were small and settler impact limited. After 1930, large numbers of conservative Mennonites entered the area, settling on natural prairies, surrounded by forest, in the vicinity of La Crete. As more Mennonite settlers arrived, demand for farmland was met by clearing wooded tracts adjacent to existing farms (Bowen 1990; Plett 2001, 156-158). This process satisfied farmers' needs until the 1970S, when population growth outpaced the availability of land, triggered by high birthrates and an influx of Mennonite migrants from Latin America, in effect completing a cycle of migration that had taken many from Canada to Latin America from t he 19205 onward (Sawatsky 1971; Van Dyke 1972). This presented a serious dilemma for the Mennonite community, which wanted to keep its young people, provide them with opportunities to farm, and make it possible for them to raise their children in rural settings, insulated from outside influences. Many residents believed that the problem could be resolved if the province opened more land for settlement.

The land being developed southwest of La Crete is part of a nearly flat plain that was once the floor of a glacial lake. The soils, developed from lacustrine silts and clays, are often poorly drained, and most government experts consider them marginal for agriculture. Indeed, the Canada Land Inventory has rated the land as Class 4, which means that it has severe limitations, including dense subsurface layers, that restrict crop production. This evaluation has been confirmed by Alberta's Public Lands Division, whose studies in the early 1980s showed that no more than 70 percent of the area contained arable land and that many places, including some parcels that were later opened for settlement, fell short of the 50 percent mark (AENR 1980b; Hanus 1980,12-13; AENR 1981,11; Northern Development Branch 1982,4-6; Sisson 1984,28; Ojamaa and McNeil 1985, 43-45). …

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