THE NOVA SCOTIA POTATO FAMINE (March 8/02)

“The all-pervading topic here, just now, is the Potato Blight. Anxious questions, and doubtful answers are all on the Farmer’s and Villager’s lips, and, as yet, while all dread a general failure, nobody can estimate the extent of the damage. Up until a week ago little was heard of ‘the blight,’ as it had made its appearance in but a few spots – it has now become more general, and in some fields has been sufficiently destructive to justify the most grave apprehensions.”

In a talk at the Kings Historical Society, L. S. Loomer said this terse paragraph from an 1845 issue of the Nova Scotian was an early forewarning of “a disaster, a terrible disaster” that struck Nova Scotia and “continued for several years.”

This disaster was the potato blight of 1845-1846 and the “forewarning” apparently came too late. Two weeks later another letter appeared in the Nova Scotian and it was obvious that the blight was full blown: “The potato disease is much more serious in the Township (Cornwallis) than was anticipated a short time ago… and the potatoes that were dug… have since become useless for man or beast. Persons who had stored potatoes in cellars had found them in such a state of rottenness that they have been obliged to carry them out and cover them up.”

This, Loomer said, was the beginning of two years of hunger and hardship in Nova Scotia “and they may have been the worst such years in recorded history.”

While most of us have heard of the potato famine in Ireland, Loomer said, few know that a similar event occurred in Nova Scotia. And as in Ireland, the widespread suffering during the blight was due to dependence on potatoes.

The blight was widespread, striking every area of the Maritimes, and causing great food shortages. In the Annapolis Valley nearly all the potato crop of 1845 was hit. Farmers in Windsor lost almost 90 percent of their crop. In Cornwallis, reads the report of the Board of Agriculture, “one half of the potato crop is diseased. In Horton “the rot has affected more than three-fourths of their potatoes.”

Farther down the Valley, in the Bridgetown area, farmers lost an estimated seven-eights of the potato crop. Outside the Valley the tale was similar. Lunenburg County farmers suffered potato losses amounting to three-quarters of the entire crop. Halifax County lost nine-tenths of its crop, Digby County two-thirds, and so on around the province.

“The rotting of the Nova Scotia potato crop in October 1845 was to have dire consequences long before the end of the year,” Loomer said, noting that the government took immediate action to counter its effects. “The Nova Scotia Legislature was in session just after the beginning of January 1846. One of the earliest items of business was relief for the victims of this agricultural disaster.”

The relief came in the form of food grants for the stricken areas. The Lieutenant Governor had already distributed thousands of dollars worth of provisions to blight victims and the Legislature moved to do the same. Humane as this may seem, the Legislature also decided that grants for food or seed would be deducted from the annual county road grants.

The potato blight persisted for several years in some areas well after 1845. During the peak of the blight and in following years, fruit and vegetable crops were hit by diseases and destructive insects. The blight’s appearance was the first of a series of farm disasters.

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