Canada’s Farming Roots: Agricultural Fairs and Education

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By Krista McCracken

Calves and Sheep, George Horlor, 1891.20. Black County Museum.

One of my favourite rural Canadian moments occurred when I was a child attending the International Plowing Match. I was standing with my parents in front of a pen that held two young calves, when a young girl yelled “Look at the sheep, Mom!” The girl was at least eight years old and apparently didn’t know the difference between a sheep and a cow. My farming childhood mind was boggled. Looking back, perhaps the girl simply misspoke and really meant to say cow. However, the incident serves as a glimpse into why community agricultural fairs and large agriculture events like the International Plowing Match matter.

So what exactly is the International Plowing Match (IPM)? The IPM is an annual event hosted by the Ontario Plowmen’s Association in conjunction with a local plowing association. This year’s International Plowing Match and Rural Expo is being held September 18-22 in Roseville, Ontario. Exhibits, demonstrations and contests at the IPM focus on farming technology, the showing of farm animals, homesteading, and of course plowing. The IPM is kind of like a community agricultural fair on steroids. It includes much of the same content as a local fair but on a larger scale and with greater abundance.

Horse-Drawn Plow Competition, at the 1960 IPM. Elgin County Archives.

The IPM focuses not only on current and upcoming agricultural technologies but on historic farming techniques and traditions. Demonstrations and displays focusing on traditional agricultural methods can provide people of all ages with exposure to Canada’s past. Old tractors, barn construction, heirloom vegetables, preserves, and handmade products such as knitting made from real sheep wool are some examples of the type of traditional agricultural items displayed. The IPM also emphasizes education at its annual event through the inclusion of 4-H clubs and subsidies for school groups.

Canada grew out of a very rural farming based society, which many people know little about and even fewer have practical exposure to. It is one thing to read about how pioneers churned butter and hand harvested wheat. It is an entirely different thing to watch or actually churn butter yourself. Agricultural fairs allow for first hand learning through demonstration and practice.

Additionally, agricultural fairs and plowing matches have a longstanding past as community events in Canada. Plowing matches have been happening in Ontario for over a century, with the first recorded plowing match being held in 1846 in Toronto as part of the first provincial exhibition. The IPM features numerous types of plowing matches some done with modern tractors and plows and others featuring older farming implements such as horse drawn plows.

The earliest documented fair in Canada was held in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1765.  As local agricultural societies developed throughout Canada so did number of agricultural fairs. By the 1800s local annual agricultural fairs were a common occurrence across the county. These early agricultural fairs were typically run by the local county and aimed to promote agriculture and the rural lifestyle. Fairs were seen as a venue to share new knowledge, sell farm machinery, and promote rural development. At this time many people, including the government, saw farming as the future for Canada. Agricultural fairs helped promote this future.

Education was a key part of these early fairs and continues to hold a significant place in fairs today. At the early fairs education was aimed at the farming community. Fairs like the IPM still contain information geared towards farmers but a significant component of their education material is now geared at the general Canadian public.

The International Plowing Match, the Royal Winter Fair, and small agricultural fairs across Canada highlight the rich agricultural past that exists throughout Canada. The development of rural areas through farming was crucial to the development of communities across the county. Agricultural fairs allow people of all ages to learn more about the past and future of agriculture in Canada. Besides, they make for a great afternoon of community based fun.

Krista McCracken is an Archives Technician at Algoma University’s Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.  She is a co-editor at Active History.

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