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Subsistence Production and Commodity Production in the British Imperial Food System: the Case of Nova Scotia Apples

Fri, April 12, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Marion


Focusing on the agricultural region of the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, before World War II, this paper will explore the historical and contemporary ways in which Canadians got and get their food directly from the land. I will argue that these are ways of making life under capitalism livable by conserving and adapting non-market means of survival. More specifically, I will show how the Annapolis Valley was both a place of global commodity production – the vast majority of the apple crop was sold in the UK – and a place of local and subsistence production.

In The Great Transformation (1944), Karl Polanyi argues that market societies are fundamentally mistaken in treating land and labour as simple inputs into production. Land and labour – or as we might say today, nature and people – rather are created outside the market system and retain wider ties to families, communities, and ecologies. This paper will explore what those ties were in early 20th century Canadian agriculture and how they have been conserved or preserved under capitalism. In doing so it will challenge agricultural historians who have focused on the development of commodity agriculture, for instance, US historian Deborah Fitzgerald, who has argued that farming in the early 20th century was already industrialized. It will also extend the work of Canadian historians like Ruth Sandwell and Gerard Bouchard who have shown the prevalence of local and subsistence production in more marginal agricultural areas. The paper is based on research conducted in the Canadian census and at the Acadia University Library Special Collections Division, as well as interviews done by the author in the Annapolis Valley.