Author aims to alter view of forest edge farming

Change perspective | Mixed farms on the edge of the boreal forest play a valid economic role in Canadian agriculture, says historian

Thousands of northern prairie farms have been treated like marginal agricultural economies, but a just-released history book attempts to give them their due.

Forest Prairie Edge by historian Merle Massie examines decades of farming history in the small area due north of Prince Albert, Sask.

It challenges widespread perceptions that farming along the edge of the northern boreal forest has been a less legitimate form of farming compared to the vast crop farms of the southern Prairies.

Massie, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Saskatchewan in 2010, lays out a “deep time” historical account of the area north of Prince Albert from Shellbrook 
in the west to Meath Park in the east.

She didn’t examine the vast sprawl of the edge land of the boreal forest from eastern Manitoba all the way to the Peace River country. Instead, she zeroed in on a small area she could study in detail — and from which she comes.

“I began to know Canada from the viewpoint of our ‘stump ranch’ farm, as my parents called it, which sits at this ecological divide,” Massie wrote in the introduction to her book, which has been in her mind for more than 20 years.

“The farm was cut tree by tree and pulled painstakingly root by root.… They left lots of trees behind and through the years the stump ranch that will always be my home defined my perspective of Saskatchewan.”

Massie argues passionately and with much documentary and testimonial backing that farmers along the forest’s edge did not push farming to an almost-unviable extreme and an aberration to legitimate prairie farming.

Instead, she said it is a reasonable and resilient mode of farming that was sometimes more viable than the southern wheat farms that relied only on crops.

Massie challenges the notion that forest edge farms aren’t true farms because of their owners’ common reliance on forest-based and off-farm wage occupations.

She said the mixed-farm and farm-and-forest nature of operations along the boreal edge offer an economic “resilience” that has allowed some farm families to survive droughts, periods of low crop prices and other challenges that have ruined many a southern farm.

She also challenges the idea that big ideas in history can’t be examined by looking at a small area, like around her home community of Paddockwood, which was once called the Mixed Farming Paradise of Saskatchewan.

By focusing on one area rather than a 2,000 kilometre swath of territory, Massie is able to fill her book with stories of individuals, groups and tiny communities that don’t generally appear in larger-focused academic histories.

Her stories include the tale of the first daring motorist who tried to drive a car north to Montreal Lake along a bushy trail. (It didn’t work out too well.)

Massie begins with the natural history of the area, examines the aboriginal-dominated period and then follows the parade of settlement eras that changed the forest edge area.

This includes the logging period that supplied wood-poor southern wheat farmers with needed wood for fuel, early homesteading, post-First World War soldier settlement efforts and the trek north of desperate droughted-out farmers in the Great Depression looking for a new life as mixed farmers.

Across the decades that she lays out in the book, Massie attempts to demonstrate that the northern farming areas of the Prairies should be seen as more than just fringe agriculture but as an economic system as valid as southern prairie crop monoculture.

She also hopes to reverse for some readers the notion that the forest edge towns and farms are the end of the road on the Prairies. Maybe, like many other places often considered to be in the hinterland of Canada, they are actually core parts of the nation.

By telling true stories of these regions, perhaps historians can piece-by-piece change Canadians’ perception of their own nation.

“Is a road really heading nowhere, or is it — from the lens of those at the end of that road — a gateway to the world? What would a history look like, let’s imagine, if it was told from the perspective of a Churchill, Man., or Thunder Bay, Ont.?” she said.

“In the end, what matters is not that I have told some new stories about a place that you might never see. What matters is that I have now (I sincerely hope) upended some of your perspectives on Saskatchewan.

“Let this new view of Saskatchewan’s past provide a road map or blueprint for those of us looking to shake up the way in which we tell Canada’s story.”

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