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Marshland: Marsh economy in the 20th century

A virtual exhibit on the records of life on the Tantramar.

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The marsh economy and society in the 20th century


To understand the dominance of hay on the marsh, we need to look at the nature of supply and market forces. First, the marshes once drained were highly productive of marsh grasses and imported grass species suitable for hay production. The costs of producing hay were low and farmers frequently took more than one crop off in a season, storing hay until market conditions were at their peak. Second, demand for hay as a feed for horses soared in the pre-automobile era, particularly as industrial and urban uses increased. Tantramar hay found four major markets. The first of these was to supply horse feed to lumber camps in various parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as the extensive forest lands of these provinces witnessed a major boom. Second, considerable amounts of hay were exported to Newfoundland for the exploitation of forest resources. A third market was the coal mines of Cape Breton where Tantramar hay was used as fodder for pit ponies. Well into the 1930s and 1940s, Cape Breton proved a reliable market. Finally there was the supply of urban horse transport, including livery stables as far afield as Boston.

Technological innovation in the form of the internal combustion engine dealt a death blow to the Tantramar hay economy in the 1920s and 1930s. As horse transport gave way to the automobile and as Maritime manufacturing stagnated in favour of concentration in Ontario and Quebec, the price of hay plummeted. From a high of $28 per ton in 1920, the price had fallen to $7 by 1938. Other commodity prices fell too, not increasing again until the late 1930s. By 1943 the combined effects of a rapidly declining hay market brought on as automobiles, trucks, and other heavy equipment replaced horse power and failure to fund routine maintenance of dykes due to the Great Depression left the Tantramar region’s farm economy in difficulty. This situation produced fears of a collapse of the essential infrastructure of the marshes and in response both the Sackville and Amherst Boards of Trade lobbied the federal government for aid to repair the dykes. With the end of the Second World War these efforts led to the Maritime Dykelands Reclamation Committee, and after 1948 through the federal Department of Agriculture, the Maritime Marshlands Rehabilitation Act (MMRA).

In spite of these efforts, the role of agriculture on the marshes underwent a profound change in the post-war period. The demise of the hay economy required producers to rethink their agricultural options and the marshes came to serve as pasture for cattle rather than as a basis for hay exports. These changes made the many hay barns that dotted the marsh obsolete.  Through the 1960s and 1970s many of these buildings fell prey to fire, or were carried away by those who sought the then fashionable weathered “barn board” siding to complete a household decorating project. The number of active commercial farm operations shrank dramatically and most farm families derived an increasingly important share of their livelihood by other forms of employment.

As the agricultural role of the Marshes declined, attention turned to their potential as enhanced habitat for wildlife, especially birds. Two organizations were particularly interested: the Canadian Wildlife Service with its Atlantic headquarters in Sackville and Ducks Unlimited, an international organization dedicated to preserving and recreating habitat for waterfowl on behalf of hunters and others with its regional office in Amherst. Several areas of the marshes were re-flooded in order to return them to a more natural state for migratory birds. Economic development authorities in the adjacent communities sought to exploit the new notion of ecotourism to attract bird-watchers and other visitors to the area. In 1988 with support from the two above organizations and Mount Allison University, Sackville established the Sackville Waterfowl Park adjacent to the town and campus, a marsh area of 55 acres with 3.5 kilometres of trails and boardwalks and 100 species of plants, attracting 160 species of birds.

Click on the documents below to learn more.