WHYCOCOMAGH (Nova Scotia) • When a land-rich family in sparsely populated Cape Breton wanted to attract workers for its understaffed country store, it offered free land to anyone who would come and work for five years.
The family expected a few dozen responses; more than 50,000 poured in - and the calls keep coming. "I expected a response, just not one as huge as this," said Ms Sandee MacLean, who came up with the idea with her sister.
Canada has a lot of land, but not a lot of people, and economically sleepy regions like Cape Breton in Nova Scotia have steadily leaked population. The island, a scenic 10,000 sq km patch of rolling forest and farmland jutting into the northern Atlantic Ocean, has only about 130,000 residents and has been losing well over 1,000 people a year for the last two decades.
As Cape Bretoners become increasingly frantic about stemming the tide of outward migration, giving away land just might be a solution. "It is validation that land is an attraction," said Mr Chris van den Heuvel, president of the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture. He hopes the strong response to the giveaway will help his group's effort to create a land bank that would make farmland affordable and bring newcomers to the province.
Several economically depressed communities in the United States have tried the same idea in recent years, including towns in Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota.
There is a long history of giving land away. European powers that wanted to populate their New World possessions, as well as Canada and the United States in their youth, gave land to anyone who would settle on it and make improvements.
But in Nova Scotia, the overwhelming response is also a measure of how many people, unmoored by the global economy, are hungry for a sense of community. To many, the proposal seemed to present a connection to a famously rich regional culture full of Scottish fiddling, community suppers and square dancing.
All of that was far from their minds when Mr Jim Austin and his wife Ferne decided to turn their store over to their daughters this year. For the two women, Ms Sandee MacLean and Ms Heather Austin Coulombe, the most immediate concern was where to find employees. "We were in a panic, we were so short-staffed," Ms Coulombe said.
The Austins opened the business, the Farmer's Daughter Country Market, in 1992 in Whycocomagh, Nova Scotia, after a life spent dairy farming. The combination bakery, produce market, ice cream parlour, fudge factory and gift shop now occupies a collection of barn-red buildings along the side of the road on a quiet stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway.
Mr Austin's father, also a dairy farmer, had amassed more than 283ha of land; after sell-offs, about 81ha remain. The land that is left is mostly mountain woodland - pretty to see, but not of much value unless it were logged. No one in the family wants to shave the hillsides for that.
By the end of this summer, the country market was down by three full-time workers, making it difficult to meet a local grocery chain's demand for baked goods from the Farmer's Daughter. The baking business helps the operation stay afloat in the bleak winter months.
Ms MacLean and Ms Coulombe tried hiring locally, but said capable and dependable hands were not available. The visa process for foreign workers was too cumbersome, too. That was when they came up with the idea of giving away land.
In late August, the women posted a gentle appeal on the market's Facebook page under the title, "Beautiful Island Needs People."
In about 500 words, they offered a job, community and 0.8ha of land to anyone who would come and work at the market for five years. They have since raised the offer to 1.2ha to allow for a septic system.
The sisters had zeroed in on several candidates well before their appeal went viral, drawing attention from national radio and television stations.
The three families they picked said it was the promise of community in a simpler, beautiful place that was the biggest attraction. Each parcel of land is worth only a few thousand dollars, and Cape Breton has plenty of land for sale.