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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The historical geography of agriculture in Nova Scotia, 1851-1951 MacKinnon, Robert Alexander


This thesis examines the changing geography of agriculture in Nova Scotia between 1851 and 1951. Its aims are to establish and explain the patterns of farm settlement and agricultural production in Nova Scotia during a century of enormous change. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the economy and society of Nova Scotia became closely integrated with those of the rest of continental North America. Improvements in ocean and inland transportation reduced the time and costs of movement over vast distances, and changing aspirations and opportunities accompanied the shift from a predominantly rural to a predominantly urban society. Particular attention is devoted to the influences on agriculture of these changes. Three settlement zones are identified — fishing, lumbering and farming — and patterns of farm production and trade are examined in three time eras: the 1850s, the 1890s and the- 1940s. Representative farming districts and sample farms are examined to illustrate how regional patterns manifested themselves at the community and farmstead scales. Although mixed farming emphasizing livestock production prevailed in most districts of Nova Scotia during the century under investigation, agricultural holdings varied enormously in size, market orientation and crop and livestock mix in all three settlement zones. In the mid-nineteenth century few districts in the fishing and lumbering zones produced agricultural surpluses; indeed most failed to produce enough food to feed their populations. Agricultural production was concentrated in a farming zone that stretched across Nova Scotia's northern tier of counties, and small zones of specialty production were already visible in the landscape (potatoes in the Annapolis-Cornwallis Valley, wheat and grains in Pictou and Sydney/Antigonish Counties). Farm surpluses entered the small domestic markets of the colony, or they were exported to New England and to nearby colonies which were more dependent on fish and timber than was Nova Scotia (Newfoundland, Saint Pierre and New Brunswick). Agriculture contributed to provincial exports at a level similar to that of forestry and three times that of mining. Between 1851 and 1891 the number of farms in Nova Scotia doubled to 60,122, and the amount of improved land increased by 240 per cent (to almost 2,000,000 acres). By the 1890s Nova Scotia's fishing and lumbering zones were far more self-sufficient in agricultural products than four decades earlier, and some hardscrabble commercial farms were regularly supplying the mines and woodworking establishments that had been established in these zones. In the farming zone new specialty products appeared (apples in the Annapolis-Cornwallis Valley, milk and cream in the districts of Hants and Colchester Counties close to railway lines), farmers continued to contribute to provincial exports at a level similar to that in the mid-nineteenth century (even though total trade had expanded considerably between 1851 and 1891), and due to the growth of the province's urban system during the last quarter of the nineteenth century the domestic market was a more important outlet for provincial farm surpluses than had been the case in the mid-nineteenth century. However, as a consequence of growing interregional connectivity Nova Scotian farmers were experiencing stiff competition from distant, well-endowed agricultural regions in local and external markets and farm families adjusted their operations to the changed circumstances. Dairying, fruit and poultry farming expanded while the production of beef cattle, sheep, potatoes and most grains declined. Marginal operations were abandoned. Between 1891 and 1941 the number of farms in Nova Scotia fell by almost half and a larger proportion of the 24,000 farms remaining in the province in 1951 (25 per cent fewer than in 1851) were "subsistence", "part-time" or "idle" operations than in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the gross value of agricultural production remained remarkably stable during this period despite declines in farms and farmland. Remaining commercial farms were more capital-intensive and specialized than in the nineteenth century and they were more concentrated in the central and western portions of the farming zone where the best soils and climatic conditions for agriculture were found. Peri-urban dairying zones encircled Nova Scotia's several urban/industrial regions. Although provincial farmers continued to contribute to exports in the twentieth century, by 1950 the relative position of agriculture in provincial exports had declined considerably, and the domestic markets were the most important outlets for surplus agricultural products. Yet Nova Scotian farmers supplied only about one-third of the food consumed in the province and the population remained dependent upon distant agricultural regions. This is essentially a case study of one important segment of Maritime Canada. However, it demonstrates a process of rural change that was repeated in nearby New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and in parts of New England, Quebec and Ontario. Changes in the efficiency of ocean and inland transportation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries transformed the costs of transporting food from distant regions and the resulting interregional competition in domestic and external markets forced adjustments on farms in all of these areas. In general, as interregional competition increased, there was a gradual shift from the production of high bulk, non-perishable commodities for export to perishable, low bulk, high value commodities for sale in local markets. Distant specialty production regions — in Western Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia, and Central and South America - became the principal sources of supply of many agricultural staples for consumers all along the eastern fringe of the North American continent, and rural outmigration and farmland abandonment accompanied rising farm productivity and agricultural specialization in nearby agricultural regions. As the twentieth century wore on, farms in Nova Scotia increasingly concentrated on products that retained a competitive advantage in domestic markets because of their perishability (fluid milk, cream, poultry eggs, market garden vegetables, apples and berries). This cycle of agricultural expansion in the nineteenth century, followed by a rapid loss of farms and farmland in the twentieth century, and the increasing concentration of capital-intensive, specialized farming in a few nodes with physiographic or market advantages over distant producing regions, was common to many long-settled agricultural regions in eastern North America.

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