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International Plowing Match will spotlight Northern Ontario agriculture

West Nipissing gears up for provincial agriculture expo in September, expected to draw thousands
The Town of Verner, just west of North Bay, will host the 2019 International Plowing Match this September. (Gilles Leblanc photo)

WEST NIPISSING — When Daniel Olivier experienced his first International Plowing Match and Rural Expo as a young boy in 1968, he was “awestruck.”

He remembers wandering the packed grounds, thrilled by the tractors and shiny machinery.

Since then, the third-generation farmer has been to more than 20 of the annual matches, and he’ll be attending yet another this fall, Sept. 17 to 21.

This match will be a little different, though, because it’s happening on Olivier’s own farm in Verner, a small agricultural community in West Nipissing, roughly halfway between North Bay and Sudbury.

“When I did that 50 years ago, I didn’t envision it would ever come up to Northern Ontario,” said Olivier.

This will actually be the second time the 102-year-old match is held in Northern Ontario. 

In 2009, it was in Earlton, a farming community on Highway 11, north of New Liskeard, a couple of hours' drive to the north.

It’s jointly run by the Ontario Plowmen’s Association and a host community each year. 

Driving through the region’s lush yellow fields, it’s impossible to miss the plowing match signage, even months in advance. 

The Plowing Match’s purple and green flags, featuring a tractor and farmhouse bordered with pines, line the roads, and stores are stocked with plowing match-branded products, from chunky speckled mugs to special edition berry jam made in town to a bilingual cookbook chock full of local recipes.

The event typically draws 80,000 attendees, and past matches suggest West Nipissing – a largely rural municipality of 14,000 – is in for an enviable economic boost.

“We’re working with 100 years of data here and the short to medium-term impact to the community is between $20 and $25 million,” said Neil Fox, chairman of the event board of directors.

“Our hotels will be full, our campgrounds will be full, our restaurants will be full, our gas stations will sell more gas.”

And, if Earlton’s experience is any indication, the regional spinoffs won’t stop there.

James Franks, the economic development officer for Temiskaming Shores, just to the south of Earlton, said his municipality is still seeing the benefits a decade on.

“Instantly, 80,000 people, many of whom had never been here before, saw Northern Ontario and Northern Ontario agriculture and realized it wasn’t just rocks and trees,” said Franks. “Within two years, our agricultural land values doubled and continued to increase since.”

For Franks, holding the match in Northern Ontario just makes sense.

“The future of farming is Northern Ontario. With climate change, the growing season is extending, the price of land here is much more palatable than southern Ontario, and now you’re seeing a more diverse approach to agriculture.”

While the backbone of the event is still the plowing itself – which has separate classes for tractors, horses, youth, and antique plows – it’s changed a lot since Olivier’s first experience.

“Back then, it was our only source of information on new technology and new products,” said Olivier. “Now it’s more about farmers educating consumers, about knowing where food comes from.”

The locals said West Nipissing has changed in that time, too. There’s been a shift away from dairy farming, and towards more cash crops, along with some major demographic changes.

“When I left 40 years ago, Verner was this little Québec in the middle of Ontario,” said Carole Lafrenière-Noël, who’s handling event media relations.

“Now, we’re seeing a population change where a lot of people from the south are leaving the big cities and want a simpler lifestyle, a more natural way of living, not as fast-paced. I call them ‘granolas.’”

Both ‘granolas’ and third-generation farmers alike are banding together to support the event. 

The International Plowing Match only happens for five days, but Lafrenière-Noël said the whole community came on board when they found out they were hosting it in 2016.

“There’s a whole sort of momentum to the whole thing that’s almost as big as the plowing match,” said Lafrenière-Noël. “You usually do things in your own little corner, but it’s such a big event it engages everyone.”

They have 52 committees tackling everything from beautification to economic development.

Highlights at this year’s match will include a tent city for more than 500 exhibitors; 1,800 camping spots with over half for RVs; continuous live entertainment; a lifestyle tent with nutrition and exercise information; and even a giant pumpkin-throwing competition.

There will be something for everyone: from farmers to international visitors to local families.

“It’s like building a little village for a week,” said Lafrenière-Noël.

Some visitors may be drawn to the economic benefits of agriculture in Northern Ontario, but Fox hopes they see other benefits, too.

“Northern Ontario is this place in the middle of nowhere you never visit unless you fish or hunt,” he said. “But it’s a wonderful place to live, to raise your family, and to do your business.”