On Self-Sufficiency 2: The Land Question

Warning!  LONG post ahead!  No pictures 😦 . But I hope what follows will be interesting, and do let me know if you’d like no more of these long, academic posts! 🙂

So those of us trying to pursue a more sustainable and self-reliant lifestyle are well aware that one of the major stumbling blocks in our way is the cost of land ownership.  This is the issue quoted the most in discussions of the future of farming–how do we make land more accessible to young people who want to farm?  For those of us living in expensive areas of the country, like the Lower Mainland, the Okanagan, Southern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, etc, the cost of land is not only an issue for farmers, but even for the simple option of home ownership that would allow for substantial and stable backyard food production.

Solutions and creative alternatives are out there, and I’d love to hear how you’re thinking about and getting around these issues on an individual basis.  But in this post, I’m thinking about the broad strokes of the history of land ownership in Canada, and where it leaves us today.  I am, of course, in a blog post, VASTLY oversimplifying.  One of my premises here is that owning the land that you can live off us is essential for true food security.  This is a very debatable premise.  I have no idea what the percentage of people in the world is who live off land that they own is, but I suspect it’s not that high.  And the whole concept of “ownership” is also a strange one from the Earth’s perspective, definitely shaped by our individualistic focus in North American and European culture.  But bear with me here as I try to pull together some of the issues and historical threads that I’ve been pondering recently.

1.  Take me back…no, further back….

In North America, I think we often imagine a sustainable time as something that existed historically in a vague image of family farms, animals grazing peacefully in fields, horse-drawn plows, barn-raisings.  For most of us in this younger generation (mid-twenties to late thirties?), family farming is at least one generation removed, so the images and realities are hazy.  But the family homestead may seem like something stable, that existed at one time.

I’d like to back in time a little further.  In Canada’s history, we have the very diverse First Nations who lived off the land before European contact (and long after, of course).   How they lived off the land varied greatly according to climate, region, culture, size, etc.  It’s likely, though, that First Nations here, as elsewhere, did practice a kind of “agro-forestry.”  This means that they were active participants in producing the food that they ate.  While they weren’t farming in a way that Europeans would have recognized, they were nonetheless actively selecting valuable foods and making sure there were conditions available under which those plants and animals would thrive.  Whether that was creating occasional fires, maintaing meadow zones, spreading seeds, or harvesting from different areas each year to preserve stocks, they were not simply living at the vagaries of nature.  While there was no concept of “ownership” in the way that we think of under capitalism, there was a clear sense of belonging and relationship with the land that spanned time and that was secure.  Land could not be taken away; it was simply home.

I think that when I imagine a life that simply IS, where I work for the survival of my family and community, rather than for some objective, externalized entity, it’s this relationship that I imagine and probably romanticize.

In Europe, meanwhile, land ownership was a possibility only for the very few.  The landlord was royalty or the church, and most of the population lived and farmed lands they didn’t own, at the pleasure of the landlord.  This feudal system existed for many centuries, and was transferred to Canada in the colony of New France.  You may remember your high school history: the seigneurie system in New France meant that the king owned all the land, a seigneur managed each section for him and collected rent, essentially, from the habitants who actually worked the land.  The rents, as in Europe, could be paid by labour on the king’s land, in crops produced, or in another form of tithe before the cash economy came to be.  Cash was also accepted when it became more available.  The seigneurie system existed in Canada until the 1850s!

2. The British Colony

Once Britain became Canada’s landlord, it wanted to secure the colony with British settlers.  Settlers for the mysterious Canadian forests were hard to come by, though, so there were more French than English around for a LONG time.  The Brits had to come up with some incentives, and the possibility of earning land title was a big one.  Britain’s system of land ownership was equally limited for most folks, and even wealthy families who were landlords often couldn’t promise land holdings for each of their children.  Scots and Irish, who had even more limited options at home because of the religious wars in the 1700s also took advantage, and these were some of the first settlers in the Maritimes.  But you had to already have some money to be able to afford passage and then to settle in the new world, so the numbers were still small.  The Brits offered more perks: soldiers who served in the North American colonies could earn land title there, settlers who developed the land over a set period could too.  For these middle classes, the advantages of owning your own land were obvious, lands at home limited, and the potential of the colonies seemed vast.

In the early 1800s there were two major events that changed the game for the lower classes.  The Napoleonic Wars in the early decades created blockades in Europe and demand for goods from elsewhere skyrocketed.  The economic booms for Maritime lumber for boat building, for instance, drew relative hordes from Britain and Ireland.  But after the wars, the famines began.  The potato famines hit Scotland and Britain hard, and other famines hit other parts of Europe too.  The famines were disastrous, not just because it left families starving, but also because it left them unable to pay their rents.  So families that had farmed in particular locations for centuries had to find new homes.  They were destitute, so most ended up homeless in the cities, and when things got so bad for everyone else in the cities, the governments started to feel the pressure to do something.  Subsidizing passage to the New World was one of the solutions, and presto, lots of immigration (we’re in the 1840s roughly now).  This large wave of immigrants, as you can imagine, brought with them a deeply ingrained desire to own their own land at all costs.

3. Confederation Needs Settlers Too

Now, you’ll remember that Confederation doesn’t hit until 1867, and what is Confederation?  Well, it’s the various groups of settlers in different parts of Canada (each independent colonies, if that’s not an oxymoron!) who come together and decide that they should be one nation, together sort of independent from Britain.  But it took some decades for all of the provinces and territories to agree on terms (some things never change).  BC didn’t join until 1871, and it wasn’t until 1870 that “Rupert’s Land”, which was the huge tract of land that formed the Prairies and the NW Territories, was purchased by Canada from the Hudson’s Bay Company.

So in the late 1800s, we had lots of land, a few relatively densely populated areas in the Maritimes, Southern Ontario and Quebec, and around BC (Victoria and around the Fraser River).  The settlers building the nation were passionate about land ownership, which had been largely unavailable to them in their home countries.  I’m completely glossing over the question of how the land became “owned” by the crown in the first place, though in Eastern and Central Canada, this was largely done through treaties between First Nations and the Crown, relatively peacefully.

Once the Canadian government took possession of Rupert’s Land, though, a whole new set of questions began.  The Hudson’s Bay Company left some trading forts, some larger settlements around those forts (larger is a relative term!), they had sold some sections to people like Lord Selkirk in Scotland, who tried to create a settlement in the Red River colony for his tenants that he was removing from their traditional lands in Scotland (and he was one of the good guys!).  Relationships with First Nations were trade-based, and their traditional lifestyles were largely intact.  But when Canada bought the territory, it had to figure out what to do with it.  In the late 1870s, Sir John A. and his colleagues came up with the National Policy.

The National Policy created a vision of a united coast-to-coast-to-coast nation, at least economically.  This was the policy that envisioned the Prairies as both the breadbasket food producers for the populated East and as the Western market for Eastern manufactured goods.  In order for the vision to become a reality, the government needed a lot of settlers to farm, and they needed a railway to transport food and manufactured goods east to west.

In the US, the Homestead Act had come into effect in 1862, enticing settlers to the Western Frontier.  But it didn’t take long for the best land to be taken up, and when Canada enacted a similar act in 1872 (the Dominion Lands Act), lots of Americans and American immigrants headed north.  Both acts were straightforward: a small application fee ($10) gave you access to 160 acres, and then you just had to farm a section of it (40 acres) and build a permanent home for yourself within 3 years.  After that, you could apply for the land title, and it was yours.  In Canada, you could also apply for the neighbouring plot at the same time, so many doubled their acreages immediately.

Now despite this easy access to land, not many took up the call, and it wasn’t until the infamous Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton took over the task in 1896 that things began to change in a significant way.  Sifton decided that the need for successful settlers was urgent, and he went on a massive promotional campaign across Europe for farmers hardy enough to break the Prairies.  This is when we get the huge influx of Eastern Europeans to Canada: from the late 1890s to about 1914 when the outbreak of World War I changes the picture again.  But the amount of immigration that took place in those 20-25 years is pretty staggering: around 3 million, which was the entire population of Canada in 1867!

4.  What’s My Point? (Yes, I do have one…or seven)

So what’s the point in this long history lesson?  First, I think Canada really is the product of people for whom land ownership represents security in a profound way.  This is a deeply rooted part of our culture, and I think it continues today–Canada still promises land ownership to those displaced from their homes in other countries.

Second, in this country land ownership is also seen as the pathway to wealth.  There are good reasons why First Nations in BC (who have never had treaties with the Crown) are considering individual land ownership rights as part of their self-determination, despite the potential risk to their communities if people decide to sell to developers and leave.  I would argue that the whole idea that wealth, survival, and retirement security come from owning your own home is a mixed legacy of this history–the trade-off of individual land ownership is the break-up of family and community systems, for better and for worse.

Third, I want to stress the point that we have land ownership in this country because of colonialism.  Land in the Prairies was repossessed from First Nations under dubious circumstances and in BC it was simply appropriated without negotiation.  The Crown then sold it at bargain basement prices to anyone who was more desirable than those original inhabitants (and yes, there were folks who were less desirable who were shut out as well, including women, in some cases).

Fourth, land will never be offered under those circumstances here again.  In other words, the legacy of those original homesteads is fixed.  Some families got a lot of land for a small price (and I’m not condemning them, by the way, the work that was required to transform those lands would take too long to talk about here, and many failed or died trying), and their families have prospered over the centuries because of it.  Those homesteads were the starting point for the wealth that much of mainstream white Canada has today, but that deal will never be on the table for us again in the same way.  I was amazed to read recently that even the Back-to-the Land-ers in the 60s and 70s were largely middle-class young people who sold possessions, including homes, in order to buy the lands they were going back to.  It may be that those financial pressures were also what caused the demise of some of the attempts–that’s another area I’m interested in reading more about.

Today it seems the lesson is that we’ve got to come up with our own money to afford market rates for land, be willing to move to possibly less desirable locations where land is cheaper, or be exceptionally creative.

Fifth, I’m regularly amazed and intrigued by the fact that the Canadian Prairies became the “Breadbasket of the Nation” for political reasons and expansionist ideolgies, and for no ecologically driven reasons.  The precariousness of Canadian agriculture today rests in part with industrial farming practices, but also with fact that the decision to farm the Prairies at all was never made based on what the land might be good for.  This paradox and it’s ecological legacy is an ongoing research project of mine.

Sixth, it is this same legacy that created another, I would argue untenable, current situation: the large farm.  The large homesteads were partly based on what would work for growing cereal grains and for ranching/dairy farming.  I assume that most folks had vegetable gardens, and so producing small scale produce wasn’t a marketable idea at the time.

The situation we have today in the Cowichan Valley is representative, I think, of the kind of transition that we’re in.  Today, ALR farmland here largely rests in large 200-acre parcels that have been passed down through family dairy farms.  Those parcels are incredibly valuable and incredibly expensive.  Young farmers can’t afford them.  So if the farm doesn’t get passed down to children who want to farm, it has become either vineyard or it has come up for redevelopment permits to take it out of the ALR.  As nice as it is to have lots of vineyards around, neither option helps to maintain or increase food security.  At the same time, many young farmers, I think, are interested in farming in lower-tech and more sustainable ways which don’t require 200 acres.  But folks are understandably nervous about breaking up these large parcels.  Time for some co-op or other new models, methinks.

Last, (lucky number 7!) I think it’s important to remember (and this is really a reminder for myself, because I have completely fallen for the home ownership spell, perhaps because my family didn’t own a home until I was an adult on my own) that most people in the world still don’t own the land they live off of, and that land ownership, at the end of the day, is part of the capitalist economy that doesn’t make much sense from an ecological point of view.  It is possible to live in other kinds of relationships with the land, some of which may be equally secure and productive.  Doing a little research on the variety of possibilities would be enlightening, I’m sure.

Ok, that was a REALLY long post.  Anybody still with me?!  What do you think?  Is land ownership an illusion or the secret to self-sufficiency?  What are you doing to overcome these hurdles?  Does thinking about the history and culture of land ownership change your perspective at all?  Whew!  Deep thoughts for a Tuesday!


8 thoughts on “On Self-Sufficiency 2: The Land Question

  1. BRAVO! Great coverage of a huge subject, particularly the moral aspects. Thanks so much… You can count on my checking in as often as possible.
    We have some organizations starting up here in Ontario, partnering those with the will to farm (but no land) with those with land (and the knowledge of generations) but unable to farm any longer/wanting to retire, i.e. farmlink(dot)net or farmstart(dot)ca.
    Producing food to sustain our selves is an age-old tradition: as you well know, many are driven to do so. My parents became back-to-the-landers in the 70’s, working, as their ancestors had done, toward self-sufficiency.
    My hat is off to this newest generation to heed the call of the earth.

  2. Thanks Deb! I’d love to hear more about your parents’ experience; so often we hear about the failures of those 70s folks, I think we need to hear more about those who were successful, or at least learn some lessons from them. I’m fascinated by what’s happening now around me, and always glad to hear about organizations like yours that are trying to repair connections that have been lost. Is it my imagination, or is the demand for the work these organizations do just huge?

  3. I wonder if an ethical thing to do is for folks with money to secure undeveloped land and lease it out at reasonable rates to up-and-coming farmers? Selling the development rights would make it more affordable, too…

    1. Emily, that’s a really interesting idea; a kind of ethical investing for those with some extra cash. I’m sure there would be a way to make that profitable. Kind of a twist on leasing out land you already own, or renting out your backyard to city farmers. I was just watching a short video on the Chelsea Green site where Richard Wiswall was talking about how he got started in farming. He partnered with a group of friends to buy a farm that was for sale, and then he farmed it. Eventually he bought out the partners. I thought that was probably still a feasible model.

      Thanks for reading and commenting too–I’m a fan of your blog 🙂 . So interesting to see all of us trying to do similar things in all these different corners of the globe.

      1. I just found a good report on Michigan farm land prices: http://aec.msu.edu/aecreports/aec638.pdf Financially, it doesn’t make much sense to buy, say, 10 acres for $30,000 and then rent it out for $800 per year. (I assume rental rates are per year or season, not per month.) You’d almost have to be doing it out of the goodness of your heart…or own the land already.

  4. Hello again Backyard Feast, I’m afraid that I may have mislead you earlier… A friend of mine does indeed work for one of the organizations that I mentioned, but it is not I. They are, however, very busy with what I consider to be an incredibly worthwhile endeavour. It always broke my heart to see all of the beautiful old farms in our area being left untended: falling apart, piece by piece. All I could think about is all of the hard work, done entirely by hand, that went into the clearing of the land and putting up these structures, such a shame that there was no one left to tend them. These programs are starting to reverse this trend, I just wish that more people knew about them!

  5. Emily, thanks for that interesting report. It gets more complicated, too, when you think about the financing. I don’t know how it works in the US, but here, although you only need 5% down to buy a home, you need 25% down to buy land. It’s one of the reasons we decided to buy and renovate a house, rather than buy land and build ourselves. Maybe one day!

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