‘Modern Day Pioneers’ See Northern Ontario’s Vast Agricultural Potential

Selina and Jim Rogers, transplanted to Saskatchewan, prepare for the fourth harvest at the former demonstration farm in Kapuskasing

In 2017, when Selina and Jim Rogers and their four children left their well-established farming operation in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in favor of a relatively undeveloped acreage in northern Ontario, more than one person gave question the wisdom of this choice.

Once an agricultural hotspot, the Northeastern Ontario region has seen less agriculture in recent years, but a concerted effort over the past decade is pushing for a renaissance.

The Rogers family, which owns and operates Rogers Crop Enterprises, believed they could rise to the challenge.

“We have humbly, but confidently, said, we have the determination, we have the technology,” Selina said, during a virtual presentation as part of the Northern Ontario Agricultural Conference on Feb. 17.

“We have so many more tools in our toolbox than three or four generations ago.

Their adventure actually began two years earlier, when a friend recommended they take a trip to Northern Ontario to explore the region that is home to the Great Clay Belt, a strip of fertile land of 180,000 square kilometers extending between the district of Cochrane and the county of Abitibi in Quebec.

In a federally-initiated immigration plan, much of the area was settled by former soldiers after World War I, but agriculture plummeted in the decades that followed and many farms once animated have been left fallow.

“Three, four generations of farmers have been lost in the North,” Selina said.

“As a farmer, it’s really sad that there are so many empty fields going back to brush where you can see they had cows, where they had sheep, where you know they were farming It’s also exciting that there’s so much potential here.

Over several back and forths, the Rogers weighed the risks and rewards, and ultimately decided to take the step to becoming “modern-day trailblazers,” Selina said.

They bought their first 200 acres in Val Rita in 2016, and by Christmas the following year they had packed everything up and moved east.

But they still needed more land to start farming, Selina noted, and that’s when they came across the Kapuskasing Demonstration Farm.

Established in 1916 by the federal government as an agricultural research farm, the property encompasses over 850 acres of land; a 5,000 square foot business incubator; and land available for crop trials and research.

It was purchased in 2015 by the Kapuskasing Economic Development Corporation with the intention of finding a tenant to operate it as a working farm.

When the deal with the original tenant didn’t work out, the property became available for rent again.

For the Rogerses, the farm presented a “fascinating opportunity” to develop a viable, self-sustaining operation, one that their children could eventually support and successfully manage for generations, Selina said.

However, their relocation strategy has not been without difficulties.

Although there was plenty of private land, it was difficult to know what was available for purchase, and to negotiate with the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry for Crown land is a slow process, Selina said.

Dealing with financial institutions has also been a frustrating endeavor as they generally don’t see Kapuskasing as a viable area for farming, she added.

So the Rogers turned to funding organizations like the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund and the Sustainable New Agri-food Products and Productivity (SNAPP) program, as well as help from the Alliance for Food. Ontario Agricultural Innovation (NOFIA) to help with related purchases.

There is also a lack of infrastructure, such as grain elevators or supply depots, which has forced the family to better plan their needs in advance.

Developing the necessary infrastructure along Highway 11 is “doable,” Selina said, but it takes planning to get there.

“I saw the challenges as something we need to think about. It strengthens our strengths,” she said. “When we take on this challenge, it gives us a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment for a job done.”

Today, the farm is thriving and the Rogers family is preparing for their fourth harvest. This spring they will seed 1,700 acres of canola, oats, “some wheat” and about 50 acres of soybeans, Selina said.

Their children are also thriving, each finding “a little piece of the farm they love the most”.

The eldest has obtained his tile drainage permit and plans to return to Saskatchewan to farm the family land there, while the next has purchased and cleared his first 100 acres of land and is now also working on his tiling permit.

Rogers’ youngest son oversees the operation of the Feed & Water Cow Mootel, a cattle rest area for long-haul truckers that opened in 2020, while tending to his own small herd of cattle .

And their daughter recently gave up a retail job to work on the farm more permanently, taking over the family’s market garden, which is being expanded for its upcoming third year.

It’s “exciting” to see the four children following in their parents’ footsteps, said Selina, who is optimistic about future generations of farmers in the North.

“This area is beautiful and it’s underdeveloped,” she said. “It has so much potential, and it would be wonderful to see more farming here.”

Held online February 17-18, the fourth annual Northern Ontario Agriculture Conference was an initiative of the Northern Ontario Agricultural Innovation Alliance (NOFIA), Rural Agri-innovation Network and Chicken Farmers of Ontario.

About Keneth T. Graves

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