The 150 Year Energy Audit: Introducing a Series of Canadian Farm Energy Profiles, c. 1871

by Joshua MacFadyen, Canada Research Chair in Geospatial Humanities

It’s that time of year when Canadians do energy audits. Some homeowners get professional audits of household energy consumption and start thinking about ways to conserve heat and light in the colder months ahead. Food is another essential energy source, and whether you are a parent planning kids’ lunches or a gardener considering how many meals your summer toil will supplement, you are conducting an energy audit. Farmers audit their business in different ways; as the fall harvest matures they think about the amounts of food and feed that will be produced, and at what costs. What if you could do an energy audit of your ancestors? In the late nineteenth-century an energy audit would have included aspects of each version, above, as virtually every family was either directly involved in agriculture or relying closely on local farms for food, feed, or fuel.

The GeoREACH Lab at UPEI is launching a fortnightly Farm Profile feature on our website that will introduce the first national study of Canadian farm families from an energy perspective. Every second week we will present an “energy profile” of farms from PEI to Ontario and all points in between. Our first profile discusses energy on the Woodworth Farms and Shubenacadie township in Hants County, Nova Scotia. Each farm that follows will use the same methodology to compare the different land use, energy production, and livestock management strategies of rural Canadians around 150 years ago.

After sharing more than a dozen of these profiles, on 11 May 2022 we will lead a one-day workshop at the Atlantic Canada Studies Conference at UNB on “Digital Humanities, Diaries, and Environment in the Atlantic Region.” The workshop will introduce the tool we developed for creating energy profiles, and it will bring together scholars from across the region to consider similar uses from diaries and other routinely generated sources. The conference CFP and additional information about the workshop is available here.

Fig. 1: Map of planned farm profiles. Suggestions are welcome, particularly in Quebec. Please contact Dr. MacFadyen or comment on the project home page. Note, the focus of the research at this point is the four provinces for which agricultural data were recorded in 1871, plus PEI based on supplementary research. We examine the energy history of agriculture in Western Canada in other studies, and we hope to develop farm-level case studies there as well, in due course.

The Agroecosystem Metabolic Profile Application

The GeoREACH Lab is also looking forward to releasing a new tool for conducting energy and environmental history. The Agroecosystem Metabolic Profile Application (AMPA) creates standardized profiles from dozens of historical variables found in routinely generated sources such as the Canadian Census of Agriculture. The AMPA is designed for Canadian case studies, but it will also work in other parts of North America and similar agroecosystems. It borrows from a number of social sciences and sustainability sciences, and in general terms it follows the methodology outlined by the Sustainable Farm Systems project (see case studies in a special issue of Regional Environmental Change edited by Gingrich et al, 2018).

The historical data we use recorded the basic land use and annual products of farms including the products from cropland, woodland, pasture and grazing land, as well as the numbers and products of livestock. The AMPA uses a variety of historical assumptions, such as the energy content of each crop’s produce and residues in the nineteenth century or the typical feed consumption and composition of each animal, to convert the variables into the total amount of energy produced by each crop and consumed by each animal. The energy is measured in joules (eg. MJ) per kg of dry matter, so that the energy from any plant, feed, or animal product may be compared with other products in the same agroecosystem. Similarly, the energy in each of these “flows” may be compared with the flows in another agroecosystem, either elsewhere in Canada or in the same place at different points in the past. 

Fig.2: Area visualization of land use in agricultural CSDs represented in the 1871 Census of Canada (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia).

This chart shows the breakdown of agricultural land in Canada in 1871 in the first three columns. The outer grey band is a representation of the land that fell roughly within the agricultural ecumene (the jurisdictions that were mostly occupied by settler Canadians) but that were not being held by farmers. This shows the large amounts of public land, lakes, and other wildland, as well as roads, towns, and other developed areas. When the figures are updated in AMPA these amounts adjust to show the relative land use of any new jurisdiction with the same historical variables as those found in the 1871 Census.

— Fig. 3. Area visualization of land use in in agricultural CSDs within each of the four provinces represented in the 1871 Census of Canada (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia)

The most commonly used source for these data, and the most comprehensive in many ways, is the Census of Agriculture. Thanks to its many surviving manuscript schedules, 1871 census provides some of the richest data at virtually every scale, from the individual farmer orchardist (or gardener) all the way up to the new Dominion of Canada. The AMPA combines over fifty variables from the 1871 Census. However, censuses have limitations, as well. For instance, they provide an excellent snapshot in time, but since most censuses are decennial they do not allow us to compare an agroecosystem’s changing energy flows for more than one year in a row. For this we would need sources such as annual censuses, which are quite rare, or, in the case of a single farm, a series of their business accounts or diaries. Moreover, the data collected by censuses reflected the priorities of their time and they sometimes overlooked key actors. In the late nineteenth century, for instance, the census did not record poultry or eggs, presumably because they were considered women’s work. The census also excluded smaller producers, although as we will see, the definition of a census farm was very much in flux in 1871.* Therefore, it is important to consider using data from other sources, from aggregate statistics to individual diaries, and the AMPA is designed to incorporate those in various ways. The Atlantic Canada Studies workshop in 2022 will invite contributions from many scholars expert in the use of diaries and life writing, and in one session we will introduce AMPA and focus on ways that diaries may enhance energy analysis and environmental history.

By considering a farm or larger agroecosystem from this energetic perspective, it is possible to see patterns and to think about how energy and land use strategies changed over time. The results are more easily mapped in digital humanities software such as historical Geographic Information Systems (h-GIS). The AMPA also includes a number of data visualization tools that show land use as well as the relative energy value of each type of farm produce. 

Energy profiles can be quite abstract, but they ultimately all stem from the decisions and actions of farm families and the non-human animals who cohabited their agroecosystems. To better understand the context in which these farms operated and the social history behind them, the GeoREACH Lab is compiling a series of profiles at the farm level. These profiles will provide a brief background into the families that lived on these farms, the farm’s energy funds (components of the agroecosystem that persisted over multiple years and decades), its energy flows (components of the agroecosystem that generally changed annually), and an analysis of the farm’s energy strategy. We then compare each farm with a profile of the larger census subdivision (eg. township) in which they appeared. The result allows us to compare individual family strategies within their geographic context and to compare them to farms in different areas.

This series focuses on land-use and the energy products from cleared farmland (cropland, pasture, and grazing land). It also explores the critical role that animals played as bioconverters including the ways that farmers reinvested energy from crop and pasture land into animal husbandry. Other publications will focus on energy from firewood and products of the forest (firewood, fencing, maple syrup, lumber, etc), as well as the energy inputs from animal feed, seed, human labour, and other external energy sources.

Please bookmark the project home page, and follow along as each profile is released. We hope you enjoy the series, and we welcome feedback and suggestions for new farms and new sources to consider in the comments, below. If you have questions about the ACSC workshop please reach out to me at jdmacfadyen at

*The 1871 census eventually determined that a farm was any area of land with at least 5 acres and some agricultural produce. However most enumerators visited every person who reported produce from any amount of land. This is of significant interest to historians interested in self provisioning as the data for small producers are still available in the manuscript sources even though they were omitted from the printed summaries.