Region’s Mennonites look to the Maritimes for land and a new start
Crowded Ontario spurs hunt for farms and realtors can’t find them fast enough
ST. JACOBS — When a group of prospective buyers approached a Prince Edward Island realtor asking about farmland recently, they added an unusual request — they also needed a church.
The buyers, all Old Order Mennonites from the Elmira area, wanted a place to build a community hub in addition to land to support their families.
Realtors Allan and Tayler Weeks were only happy to oblige.
The Weeks sold the group eight farms, plus a church, so they could establish a new colony on the island. And the realtors say more are coming — as the growing Amish and Mennonite populations in southern Ontario look further afield for affordable farmland.
“We’re talking on the phone all the time. There’s another family in the works right now buying land, and there’s quite a few more interested in coming,” Tayler Weeks said. “We just have to find them the right farms.”
Pockets of Old Order Mennonite and Amish settlements have been popping up around the Maritimes for several years, leaving their crowded churches and communities behind in Ontario.
Mennonite families from Waterloo Region have long spread around the province in search of cheaper land, but the recent focus on Atlantic Canada is new.
Another island realtor, Brad Oliver, installed a hitching post in front of his
office in Montague, P.E.I., to make his new clientele feel at home. He’s also sold farms to 16 Amish families in the last two years, and thinks there could be hundreds more coming.
The only problem, he said, is finding them farms fast enough.
“I’ve got more buyers than I’ve got sellers,” said Oliver, a Wilfrid Laurier graduate who lived in Waterloo Region in the 1970s. “It’s an economic thing. Dad can sell his farm near Millbank and buy an equal farm here, and a couple for his boys, and still have money left over.”
In Prince Edward Island, they’re buying farmland at an average of $2,500 an acre, Weeks said — a steal compared to southern Ontario, where an acre of workable land can cost upwards of $15,000 or more.
“It’s our land price. It’s tough for families in Ontario,” Weeks added. “For the Mennonites, it’s too hard for the younger ones to establish their own farm. So they’ve started their own community here.”
The demand is significant enough that Oliver travelled to Waterloo Region a few years ago to meet with church elders to discuss real estate options.
The buyers have sent several large groups down to P.E.I., to inspect potential farms and barn sites and even meet with the province’s minister of agriculture to discuss the transition, Oliver said. They needed special exemptions from the province to construct buildings without plumbing and get government IDs without pictures.
Since their faith doesn’t allow them to fly, they also have to travel to the east coast by slower means.
“Every time they come, they bring a bus. They’ll take a 24passenger bus and fill it,” Weeks said. “They’re very unique. We’ve learned so much from them. They’re probably the nicest clients we’ve ever had.”
Outside Sussex, N.B., another group of Mennonite families settled into a rural community this spring, buying up farmland and an unused community hall that serves as their school and church.
The families all settled within about 20 kilometres of that hall, planted vegetables, and are building a greenhouse and machine shop.
“We felt the Lord led us right to Sussex,” Johan Guenther told a local newspaper reporter. “Our church was getting to be too full, and instead of adding onto the building, they thought it would be nice to have an outreach.”
Guenther said the group of families had spent two years studying where to relocate in Canada, and praying for guidance.
While the new arrivals might turn heads for their buggies and old-fashioned style of dress, the locals in the Maritimes have welcomed them, Oliver said. They’ve settled into largely rural areas where their lifestyle is less at odds with the mainstream population, he said.
“Rural southern Ontario is getting pretty citified. Here, we still have a very rural, agrarian society. Our people don’t find those guys to be too backwards or anything,” he said. “They’ve really been well-received.”
Weeks’s father first established a connection with his Mennonite clients when he met them at a farm show in London, Ont., last year. Now families are referring their relatives to him, and more are on the way.
“I’m sure they would have loved to stay in Ontario. But they’re kind of creating a new chapter in their community, and they’re coming east,” Weeks said.
A Mennonite couple head toward Wallenstein Friday. Mennonite families from Waterloo Region are buying land in P.E.I. and New Brunswick.