July 5, 2014
Look up at any given moment cycling through Quebec and you will likely see a number of silos and steeples dotting the horizon. The dome-shaped cylinders and silver spires tower over the villages, green fields, and trees. This is the kind of place that intrigues me to no end. Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m really here in this place. Today I’ll touch on the silos, which signal dairy farming and as you know tickles my fancy.
Geography and history have shaped farming in Quebec so that it’s noticeably different from Ontario and especially the prairies. The accident of geography means farms are smaller simply because there is less space compared to the expansive plains. However, the really interesting difference is the practice of strip farming originating out of French colonization policies. In the US, Louisiana similar characteristics show up for the same reason. Unlike the English who sent colonists over to develop their own lands, the French imposed a semi-feudal seigneurial system in which large land grants were given to a few individuals who were responsible for looking after tenant settlers. Because there were no roads and the land was so rich along the St Lawrence, the seigneuries were divided into long narrow strips granting many more people access to the river. It was a crucial travel and communication route for a long time. The road I’m cycling was the first road laid out. Even today, you can still see the narrow strips lining the St Lawrence.
The other characteristic of these seigneuries is that they centered around the church and the mill. Communal life develop around these institutions. As subsistence farmers, the mill was crucial for milling various grains and also lumber. Rents were typically collected in kind so it served the interests of the seigneur to establish a mill. New technologies replaced the wind and hydro mills so not too many of them remain though I encountered a few today. The churches are another matter altogether but that’s for another day.
A lot of agriculture remains along the St Lawrence even as the population increases. Farms seem to be relatively small and the ditches between the strips remains even when it’s apparent a single farmer is cultivating multiple sections. The residential and agricultural proprieties are intermixed fairly amicably it would seem. I’ve noticed that many farmers appear to have sold roadside lots while maintaining the farm right behind or beside. Whatever the formula, small farming appears to be sustainable around here.
The road off Montreal island and beyond for a stretch isn’t particularly pleasant with all suburban buildup but once you pass that it becomes simply delightful. The Chemin du Roy follows the St Lawrence so beautiful sights and most of the way has bountiful and paved shoulders. And it’s relatively flat! The villages are surreal. Each one deserves a day’ exploration but there’s always another beckoning around the next turn.