By Mel Fisher
Our Wabigoon Clay Belt is unique, when it comes to agriculture – Rainy River district is more like Manitoba, and Thunder Bay district has different soil and a cooler, less sunny summer climate.
Winter wheat is grown in Nebraska, because they usually have wetter falls, and dry springs, while spring wheat is grown in Saskatchewan, because they usually have wetter springs and dry falls. We local farmers think there must be something with our particular soil and climate we can grow better than anybody else, and we keep experimenting with new things, in hopes of finding our ‘holy grail’.
This is not new. On review of old Agricultural Representatives reports, one is struck by the number and variety of trials that were carried out way back in pioneer days. Clover was very fashionable for forage a hundred years ago, as fashionable as alfalfa is now. Growing clover seed was a labour-intensive process as it was done in those days, all weeds had to be hand-pulled, and the dried clover carefully gathered by hand and delivered to a specially adapted threshing machine called a ‘clover huller’. Being new country, we did not have many of the worst weeds yet, and clover would yield exceptionally high seed yields in our Wabigoon clay, so we had an advantage in producing clover seed. A very effective marketing co-op was set up, and clover was indeed our holy grail – through the teens and early twenties, many local farmers did very well indeed growing clover for seed.
Unfortunately, with repeat cropping the yield of clover seed goes down – the soil presumably becomes depleted of something clover needs. With time, more noxious weeds were introduced here, and use of herbicides became common, taking away that advantage. Other areas could compete with us, and clover fell out of fashion and this industry disappeared.
There were reports of trials growing field peas as early as 1915, and this was very successful if mixed with oats. This produced a very good feed grain for farm use, however, there is little market for such a mixture, and no business exporting peas from our area ever developed. Similarly, a trial growing alfalfa for seed was reported to be successful in the late teens, but not pursued for some reason. Winter wheat was tried in the twenties (I tried some of the new varieties a few years ago, good crop the first year, but Canada geese came from far and wide and ate all the seedlings the second year). Sunflowers were grown for silage for a number of years in the 20s, then fell out of favour. Hemp was grown in the thirties, and found to grow well indeed, however, there was no market and the crop was eventually burned. Hemp was tried again in the nineties, and again found to grow well, but again there was no market and the crop eventually had to be burned (no, Virginia, you can’t get a buzz being near burning hemp even in large quantities, it just looks like marijuana). The province has always been supportive of these efforts, and perhaps that is why the Agricultural Representatives reports all indicate great success – one does not emphasize failures in reporting to ones distant superiors. Variety trials have always been helpful – a huge breakthrough was made in the 30s with the development of rust-resistant oats, and later barley, as these grow well here, but rust was a big problem.
Interestingly, this area is good at growing forage, but there is little reported in the way of trials in improved or new forages, at least up to the mid fifties. Hay has been a main crop, the market being the bush camps which of course used large numbers of horses. In the late 30s, many camps closed, and efforts were made far and wide to sell the resulting surplus. A market study at the time pointed out that we were importing lots of milk and butter into the district, and suggested expanding the livestock herd would be the sensible way to use up the surplus.
There were livestock trials too. Dairying has had its ups and downs; there were quite a number of sheep in the thirties, raising chickens and eggs was important until more recent times, indeed it is reported that Red Lake got its first really fresh eggs from local producers over the new highway in 1946. Hogs have waxed and waned – in homestead days most homesteads kept a few hogs, and several larger operators made a business of supplying them with weanlings. There were a number of fur farms over the years. The raising of beef cattle has been a mainstay, especially since the war.
With all this, we still haven’t found our silver bullet, the magic crop that will make the district famous for its farms, but we keep trying.