Homesteaders. They came on the promise of free land. They stayed because they could not afford to turn back and root by root created the origin of the western agricultural world.
The era of horses and pickaxes seems like a long time ago, but the reality is that free land is still very real in Canada and it is luring the young and hopeful.
In the Yukon, there are little pieces left for “agricultural improvement” that are part of the last of the Crown territory to be transformed into agriculture. The premise for title is still improvement, a model that western Canadians are used to. In other parts of the country though, free land is part of a broader economic mandate.
Recently the Farmer’s Daughter Country Market in Cape Breton put out a call for employees. The three couples who qualified would get two acres of free land to build a house upon after a time of employment. There was no promise of power or water or sewer, but that did not deter more than 2,000 applicants who were willing to work on the land in exchange for the little parcels by the sea.
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This innovative approach was used in Wales where for about C$1.50 a year (yes that is one dollar and 50 cents), you could have a four-bedroom bungalow on the sea with 140 acres of land. In that part of the world that is a tremendous amount of property. The catch was the caring of the 416 sheep that came with it and grazed on species-protected land.
Closer to home the movement to buy a little farm in P.E.I. and grow your own food is still referred to as homesteading. Homesteading there is when you take something that is neglected and turn it into a productive piece of land. It is closely related to permaculture practice where one uses and understands the interaction of all the elements.
Is this any different than what grandma used to do?
No. And if you are of an older generation this is not new to you and likely you are doing some sort of ‘homesteading’ practice every day. But it is new to young urbanites who are thrilled with the opportunity to grow their own food and who feel they are leading a food revolution. I would not scoff — the agriculture as we know it today came from those very beginnings. We may not see our own children coming back (or being able to afford to come back) to every Canadian farm. But there is someone waiting for the chance to take their place.
The emergence of greenhouses and glasshouses is really allowing folks to grow food in any space and much of the change is growing upward in vertical structures. This is far from free but there are little bridges between these thoughts and creative communities. The Saskatchewan village of Craik offered unserviced lots for $1. It was part of the plan of an eco-village and it worked.
If you wanted to build a regular home, you could have headed to Cupar, Sask. Several towns in Alberta offered residential lots for $1 while Mundare looked for businesses to build for the same price, basically free. Of course you had to build a house or a business, but then that is the idea.
In total there are still a half-dozen places where the lot or land is free. And while the agricultural land program in the Yukon seems to be Canada’s last frontier, Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, east of Montreal, continues to attract suburbanites and the $10 lots in Delia in our province (population 186) are still selling.
There’s nothing smooth about a free ride, but it is a start. And those towns and communities around the globe that are desperate for employees or revival have nothing to lose and everything to gain in attracting families to invest. Agriculture has nothing to lose either but the beginnings of this daring investment are small and they are not attracting a lot of attention. Maybe they don’t need to.
I can think of several families who are quietly farming with or working for well-established farms, even significant corporate farms, that live on land that was gifted as an incentive. It gives those young families a sense of value and belonging, and there is a tremendous amount of loyalty. Like the free lot in town, they build their own homes and they want to stay to work and to play.
The lure of free land is more than just a passing thought — it has merit for our farms and our communities and, given our history, may reflect an interesting and adventurous period of time for generations ahead.