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My first visit to the Pickering Lands


The car2go I rented to drive out to the Lands, in front of one of the barns at Thistle Ha’ farm, expressing the big city-country contrast.

The aim of the Abundance GTA project is to help foster in Torontonians a “heartened” connection to the Pickering Lands. So, I asked myself, how can I myself develop a “heartened” connection? to these lands I’ve never visited? I decided I had to go visit the lands. And so I did, on June 10 of this year, visiting Jim Miller at Thistle Ha’ farm.

Thistle Ha’ farm is the only property in the Pickering Lands whose expropriation order was cancelled. Two-thirds of Thistle Ha’ farm, including its buildings, was expropriated in 1973 by the federal government for the proposed Pickering airport. Jim’s parents, however, fought the expropriation order all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, and won. As a result, Thistle Ha’ farm has been in the family for four generations, starting with Jim’s great grandfather, a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Canada in 1835 at 18 years of age, and settled on the farm in 1839.

Thistle Ha’ farm barn with lush green and a big blue sky

The Thistle Ha’ farmhouse, built of granite stones from the ice age all collected from the 200 acre farm property.  The rubble has been squared on 5 sides, and there is white ribbon pointing between all the stones.  The original part of the house was built in 1855, with an addition made circa 1875.

These days, the farm is quiet with just Jim and his wife living there, but in its heyday in the summer season, it was a bustling place with up to 22 people resident, what with children and farm help. Thistle Ha’ was a highly successful purebred livestock farm renowned in Canada and the US for its cows, horses, pigs, and sheep.

A Clydesdale horse poster from 1882

Although the Millers eventually won the right to keep the farm, it was a long and lengthy process spanning over 6 years. During this time, with no certainty about the future of the farm, it was decided that Jim, who had just completed his training as a chemist, would go out to work instead, leaving the farm.

It is only recently after retirement that Jim has come back to the Pickering Lands and the farm. All the animals are long gone, his parents are gone, and the land is rented to neighbouring farmers, and Jim has become a valuable keeper of the memories of how it all used to be and a key spokesperson for the Lands.

Touring around the Lands in his truck, Jim pointed out to me where or how things used to be. This took some imagination on my part, as many of these things could not be seen. Most poignant was our drive through the Hamlet of Brougham, the centre of the farm community Jim grew up in, which while alive and vibrant in Jim’s mind, was now just empty grown-in lots.

A cemetery on the Pickering Lands, one of the few indications that remain of a past bustling farm community

“With all this great agricultural land, why wouldn’t farmers be lining up to farm here?” I wondered. Jim explained that with only one-year leases from Transport Canada, farmers can’t build a future. Also, there is no supportive infrastructure for the farmers here. I did not realize this, but to farm, you need to have services that support farmers close by (e.g., farm equipment suppliers). And even to live here, like anywhere else, you need to have commercial and community services (e.g., shops, schools). As a result, there are only a handful of farmers currently farming on the 9,600 acres of remaining Pickering Lands and most of these farmers do cash crops and only one lives on the lands.

The farm of the Tapscotts, the only remaining farm family that still lives and farms on their farm.  They do not own their home or land as they were expropriated in 1972, but have been surviving on one-year leases.

My most joyful part of the tour was seeing Duffins Creek. To me, creeks are like the blood vessels of the land. The water was clear and clean and so I felt that although the vibrant farming community that was once here has died, the lands themselves are alive and well and full of positive potential.

Duffins Creek, clear and clean

After the tour, sitting in the Thistle Ha’ farm sitting room, Jim and I discussed many things, one of which was another glimpse of a positive future, and that is the Potato Project. A couple of years ago, Jim started this project, which invites school children to plant some potatoes in the Spring and come dig them up in the Fall. The intention is to have children participate in the entire farming process from planting to harvest, rather than just visit a farm for a day. (For more information on Thistle ha’ farm and the Potato Project go to http://thistleha.com/)

The sitting room in Thistle Ha’ farmhouse.  There is a portrait of Jim’s great grandfather to the right, and a clock from Scotland to the left.

My first trip to the Pickering Lands covered a lot of ground. In future blogs, I plan to connect further to the Lands through an exploration of the Lands starting from the bottom up. I will start at the very bottom with area geology, and then work myself up through the layers, looking into the area’s soils, water, First Nations history, and farming history, and then current infrastructure and biota. I hope you will join me on this journey.

#PickeringLands #ThistleHafarm #community #agriculture #DuffinsCreek #education #livestock