Cover: From Dismal Swamp to Smiling Farms: Food, Agriculture, and Change in the Holland Marsh, by Michael Classens. photo: an aerial shot of green and brown parcels of farmland.
236 pages, 6 x 9
16 b&w photos, 3 maps, 4 charts
Release Date:15 Nov 2021

From Dismal Swamp to Smiling Farms

Food, Agriculture, and Change in the Holland Marsh

UBC Press

From Dismal Swamp to Smiling Farms is part of the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot, published with the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The EPUB version is available as a free, open access download. Click the download button on the left.

Driving through the Holland Marsh one is struck immediately by the black richness of its soil. This is some of the most profitable farmland in Canada. But the small agricultural preserve just north of Toronto is a canary in a coal mine.

From Dismal Swamp to Smiling Farms recounts the transformation, use, and protection of the Holland Marsh, exploring how human ideas about nature shape agriculture, while agriculture in turn shapes ideas about nature. Drawing on interviews, media accounts, and archival data, Michael Classens concludes that celebrations of the Marsh as the quintessential example of peri-urban food sustainability and farmland protection have been too hasty. Instead, he demonstrates how capitalism and liberalism have fashioned, and ultimately imperilled, agriculture in the area.

The social and ecological crises of our industrialized food system are becoming more acute, and questions about where our food comes from and under what conditions have never been more important. At the centre of these questions – and of any efforts to re-localize food systems – is the land. This fascinating case study reveals the contradictions and deficiencies of contemporary farmland preservation paradigms, highlighting the challenges of forging a more socially just and ecologically rational food system.

This important contribution to the history of agriculture in Canada will attract food and agriculture historians, food systems scholars, environmental historians, historical geographers, and local history enthusiasts alike.

Classens, an expert on social and environmental justice within the food system, draws on firsthand experiences of the Holland Marsh from interview data combined with review of an ample literature to produce this detailed case study. M. H. Albro, Clemson University, CHOICE Connect
Michael Classens has produced an engaging exploration of farming in the Holland Marsh. His book foregrounds the tension between the specific ecology of the region’s muck soils and the imperatives of capitalist agriculture. Shannon Stunden Bower, associate professor, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta
As a case study of human–land interaction and our ability to shape our environment according to our own perception of what we want and need from it, this book is worth reading. As a cautionary tale about what the consequences of those decisions might be, it is must-read. Elka Weinstein, Digestible Bits and Bites Book Reviews. Culinary Historians of Canada.
This book is that rare thing, a serious work of historical scholarship that also tells a complete story: how the Holland Marsh and its history contribute to Canada’s current system of food and agriculture. James Murton, associate professor, Department of History, Nipissing University

Michael Classens is an assistant professor in the School of the Environment at the University of Toronto. His work has appeared in Local Environment, the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, the Canadian Journal of Urban Research, Agriculture and Human Values, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, and Society and Natural Resources.


Introduction: Culture's Marsh

1 The Production of Land, 14,000 BC–1925

2 The Production of Fields, 1925–1935

3 Crops, Markets, and the Production of Stability, 1935–1954

4 Agricultural Modernization, Ecological Contradiction, and the Production of Instability, 1954–1990

5 A Legacy of Contradictions: Crisis and the (Re)production of the Holland Marsh, 1980–Present

Conclusion: W(h)ither the Marsh?

Notes; Selected Bibliography; Index

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