Go Big or Go Spruce

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Editor’s note: This is the third article in “Soundings,” a series of articles jointly published by The Otter ~ la loutre and the Acadiensis Blog that considers new approaches to history and the environment in Atlantic Canada. The entire series is available here on the Otter and here on Acadiensis.

by Josh MacFadyen and Andrew Watson

Environmental historians often search for signs of large scale energy shifts that help explain transitions at the societal and ecosystem level. Best known is the rapid adoption of coal and other fossil fuels during the late 19th century in urban-industrial economies, such as Britain, Germany, and the United States. Agriculture’s energy transition came much later, but it has received relatively little attention from historians by comparison. The articles in a recent special issue of the interdisciplinary journal Regional Environmental Change address this imbalance in energy history by asking how exactly the major flows of energy changed within bounded agroecosystems over the last two centuries. Our paper focuses on energy in Prince Edward Island’s agriculture. We found that energy transitions look different depending on the geography and scale of analysis, the quality (as opposed to the quantity) of energy, and the complex motives that shaped the decisions made by rural people. The results are illustrated by the experience of two families, the Munns and the Sheas, and the very different approaches they took to increasing their farm’s energy flows in the late 19th century.

Prince Edward Island offers a case study for examining the role of energy in eastern Canada’s woodland-livestock agroecosystems, or what some Canadian historians have called “agri-forestry.” Using a new model of energy analysis developed by members of the Sustainable Farm Systems project, our essay traces three forms of societally useful energy over four time points (1880, 1930, 1950, and 1995) that cover the transition from traditional, organic practices to modern, industrialized processes. Explained in greater detail in the open-access paper and online supplement, the three flows amount to all the energy contained in (1) the produce that leaves the agroecosystem, (2) the produce that is reused within the system, and (3) the energy introduced from outside the system. Included within the agroecosystem are all the organisms that inhabit the farmland, barnyard, and other non-managed portions of the farm. Outside the boundaries of the system exist the humans that managed and consumed these organisms (everyone from local farmers to more distant urbanites) as well as the various inputs that farmers acquire from society.

The following image shows the farm built by Thomas Shea in Groshaut, Kings County, PEI, with colour-coded arrows demonstrating the conceptual flows of energy in a variety of inputs, outputs, and internal flows. The red arrows indicate energy inputs that originated from outside the system. The blue arrows represent the produce outputs consumed by humans both on the farm (solid) and in distant markets (dashed). The green arrows indicate what we call “biomass reused” (BR) internal flows. Finally, the dashed red line shows the agroecosystem boundary, which is more a conceptual delineation than a geographic space. We converted all energy into gigajoules and divided those values by the system’s land area to allow comparison over time and between case studies at the local and international scales.

Major Energy Flows, over c1950 photo of T. Shea farm

Industrial agriculture represents an energy transition. Farms were once the world’s primary suppliers of energy. By the end of the 20th century, they were important energy consumers. When we started this research, we expected modest increases in the blue lines (outputs), decreases in the green lines (internal flows), and massive increases in the red lines (inputs). However, we were surprised by how consistent PEI energy flows remained at the provincial and county scales. A more careful analysis revealed that the quality of the energy produced stability. Particularly important were the non-comestible energy flows created by PEI’s mixed livestock and woodland use. Farmers required steady flows of internal biomass reused (green lines) in order to feed the herds. When some livestock types declined (especially sheep and horses), farmers replaced them with enough cattle, and later pigs, to keep the feed demand steady and increasing. Furthermore, the energy from woodlots remained a large component of the total output until at least the mid-20th century. When woodland energy outputs declined in the late 20th century, the concomitant rise of cropland outputs involved minimal new energy inputs from diesel and fertilizers.

Going Big

Farm-level energy information allows us to examine the energy trends within a single township in Queens County near the end of the settlement period during the late 19th century (1880). Gentleman farmer Roderick Munn raised horses, sheep, and likely cattle, but his focus was on maximizing the productivity of his cropland in Marshfield. He recorded crop types, planting, location, and output in great detail in his ledgers.

Munn Farm, Marshfield, PEI, Source: CN Scenic Views CN004494

Marshfield got its name from the many small streams and estuaries running through it, which made a number of important riverine resources available. Munn’s farm was close to the island’s shore, but far enough upland that almost every acre was ideal for producing valuable energy outputs from crops and pasture. The Munn family also provided ample labour inputs. Roderick and wife Jane had six children, an ideal situations for intensifying farm productivity through labour. Between 1881 and 1891, there were always four or five working-age adults on the farm. Much of their work in those years was spent clearing a 25-acre parcel for pasture (and wood) produce. They also laboriously treated the remaining land with animal and estuarine manures, including 1,366 loads of PEI’s famous “mussel mud.” The result, shown in the chart below, was a significant increase in total energy outputs, particularly the pasture and fodder necessary for feeding livestock.

Going Spruce

The expansion into the last of PEI’s agriculturally marginal lands in West Prince and East Kings counties, what our article calls “second fronts,” also increased agroecosystem energy outputs. The Shea farm in East Kings (shown in the 1950s, in the energy flows diagram above) is an example.  Thomas and Johanna Shea built the small fifty-acre farm in Groshaut during the 1880s with their adult sons Dennis and John. Irish Catholic families like the Sheas joined a similar expansion of Acadian settlement in what became St. Charles Parish, a frontier community immortalized by Lawrence Doyle’s raucous Picnic at Groshaut.

Between 1880 and 1930, Groshaut settlers aggressively cleared land and constructed farmland in the uplands. With an elderly father and no sons of his own, John must have done much of the labour as the farm intensified in the early 20th century. Like the Munns, the Sheas benefited from a large amount of wetland that was always described on cadastral maps as “vacant” or “Government Land.” Aerial photos from 1935 reveal Thomas Shea’s farm and the surrounding areas under intensive cultivation for crop and pasture energy production.

1935 Shea farm, 621 Selkirk Rd, Groshaut, PE (PEI Aerial Photographs, 5346-69)

However, by comparing the 1935 photograph with one taken in 1958, we see that the second front had failed. The “woodland” visible behind the Shea home in 1958 had been farm fields in 1935, but had reverted to forest. The farm was, in the common Island idiom, “going spruce.” John Shea died in 1924, and although Agnes was listed as the owner of the original fifty-acre lot in 1927, all of the other land they farmed was by then “R.C. Church Property.” The 1958 aerial photo confirms that the forest was quickly taking over.

1958 Shea farm,621 Selkirk Rd, Groshaut, PE (PEI Aerial Photographs, 16036-92)

The energy implications of this transition had more to do with livestock than the value of forest produce. Livestock herds were always small and scrappy in the “second fronts,” and they became more so with marginal land abandonment. Although livestock density stabilized in PEI overall from 1880-1995, the herds were quickly beginning to concentrate in more intensive farming areas like Queens County. This was evident as early as the 1880s on farms such as Roderick Munn’s, but it accelerated in the mid-20th century. Kings County’s livestock density was stable in 1880 and 1930, but by 1995 it had dropped almost by half. The flows of reused feed, seed, and litter biomass remained similar to their 1880s levels in Prince, and increased somewhat in Queens. But in Kings, the disappearance of livestock dramatically reduced the prominence and importance of the internal flows of biomass energy needed to support the animals of the agroecosystem.

The implications for agricultural sustainability are difficult to predict. Recent reports have suggested that the decline in livestock is having a deleterious effect on soil health. We argue that a systems-based study of land use, including a long run examination of families such as the Munns and Sheas will help scientists and planners, as well as historians, understand the complex relationship between animals, society, and the land in Atlantic Canada over time.

Feature Image: C. Jeffery – Abandoned farmhouse, Munn Rd, PEI, c1993.
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I am an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Prince Edward Island where I teach in the Applied Communication, Leadership & Culture Program in the Faculty of Arts. My research focuses on the history of biomass energy and agriculture. From 2012-2014 I was the NiCHE project coordinator, and I served on the NiCHE editorial board until 2018.

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