This blog post was originally published in the Network in Canadian History of the Environment group blog, The Otter in April of 2010. Find the original here.
I grew up on the edge, the fringe. That isn’t a political statement, nor does it reference a social comment – my Mom was a teacher, my Dad a farmer. It is a reference to a place: the forest fringe, the edge ecotone between the prairies and the northern provincial boreal forest, north of the city of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.
It was a place where, as my Dad once said, you could make hay one day and go blueberry picking the next, clean the barn then drop the pitchfork and grab your fishing rod. “Going to the lake” was as easy as going to visit a neighbor, and happened almost as frequently. At the transition zone between farming and forest, living on the edge meant pulling aspects from both into the local economy, society, and culture.
My attachment to this edge place means that although I am Saskatchewan born, I am not from the prairies. My grandparents fled the prairie dust bowl and Depression in 1934, moving their animals, implements, and household goods from Weyburn north to the forest fringe along with an estimated 45,000 other people during what was known as The Great Trek.
They abandoned the plains wheat monoculture to embrace a mixed farming lifestyle in a place where they had hope, as well as trees, shelter, fuel, and water. I don’t mean to romanticize that move – there were plenty of hardships at the forest edge – but the rejection of the prairie shaped the identity of my family and our community. Most Canadians fail to recognize Saskatchewan as anything but flat and treeless, blue skies framing golden fields of wheat. That stereotype drives regional conceptualizations of Canada – the prairies are flat, the Maritimes are wet, the North is cold. My work, which is a place history of the north Prince Albert area, suggests that historians must critically engage with the idea of regionalism to uncover and examine underlying stereotypes or assumptions.
One casualty of the power of regional stereotypes is the concept of an ideal farm. A prairie wheat farm, specifically engaged in international market trade for profit has been presented as the apex of the farm endeavor. As a result, few historians have understood or analyzed the critical cultural and social differences between prairie wheat farms and mixed farms common to parkland/forest fringe environments. The Great Trek and similar migrations show that cereal monoculture was quickly abandoned in times of environmental or economic stress, when the edge environment of the forest fringe became a refuge.
Edge farms – with their shorter growing seasons, frost hazards, and soil conditions – grew less wheat, less successfully, less often. However other crops, such as barley, oats, and alfalfa, thrived, as did most livestock. Farmers combined mixed farming with occupational pluralism, particularly non-farm economic activity from the forest (cordwood cutting, fishing, hunting, commercial freighting) as a way of life.
Yet the wheat ideal remained, and farms that required off-farm income were classified as marginal. Recently, powerful arguments from the forest sector demand the return of marginal edge farmland to forest, citing carbon sequestration, forest regeneration, renewable energy resources and green capital. This has led to a re-evaluation of the edge, shifting the ideal away from agriculture. Local tourism promotion as the ‘Lakeland’ region further cements the cultural role of trees. But a concurrent growth in alternative bioenergy research and ethanol production has made farmland an even more critical part of our future. The debate seems to be: which do we need more? Forests, or farmland? The Great Trek migrants would say: some of both, please.