It was the royal desire that New France should some day become a powerful and prosperous agricultural colony, providing the motherland with an acceptable addition to its food supply. To this end large tracts of land were granted upon most liberal terms to incoming settlers, and every effort was made to get these acres cultivated. Encouragement and coercion were alike given a trial. Settlers who did well were given official recognition, sometimes even to the extent of rank in the noblesse. On the other hand those who left their lands uncleared were repeatedly threatened with the revocation of their land-titles, and in some cases their holdings were actually taken away. From the days of the earliest settlement down to the eve of the English conquest, the officials of both the Church and the State never ceased to use their best endeavors in the interests of colonial agriculture.

Yet with all this official interest and encouragement agricultural development was slow. Much of the land on both the north and the south shores of the St. Lawrence was heavily timbered, and the work of clearing proved tedious. It was estimated that an industrious settler, working by himself, could clear not more than one superficial arpent in a whole season. So slowly did the work make progress, in fact, that in 1712, after fifty years of royal paternalism, the cultivable area of New France amounted to only 150,000 arpents, and at the close of the French dominion in 1760 it was scarcely more than twice that figure, - in other words, about five arpents for each head of population.

While industry and trade, particularly the Indian trade, took the attention and interest of a considerable portion in the population of New France, agriculture was from first to last the vocation of the great majority. The census of 1695 showed more than seventy-five per cent of the people living on the farms of the colony and this ratio was almost exactly maintained, nearly sixty years later, when the census of 1754 was compiled. This population was scattered along both banks of the St. Lawrence from a point well below Quebec to the region surrounding Montreal. Most of the farms fronted on the river so that every habitant had a few arpents of marshy land for hay, a tract of cleared upland for ploughing, and an area extending to the rear which might be turned into meadow or left uncleared to supply him with firewood.

Wheat and maize were the great staples, although large quantities of oats, barley, and peas were also grown. The wheat was invariably spring-sown, and the yield averaged from eight to twelve hundredweights per arpent, or from ten to fourteen bushels per acre. Most of the wheat was made into flour at the seigneurial mills and was consumed in the colony, but shipments were also made with fair regularity to France, to the West Indies, and for a time to Louisbourg. In 1736 the exports of wheat amounted to nearly 100,000 bushels, and in the year following the banner harvest of 1741 this total was nearly doubled. The price which the habitant got for wheat at Quebec ranged normally from two to four livres per hundredweight (about thirty to sixty cents per bushel) depending upon the harvests in the colony and the safety with which wheat could be shipped to France, which, again, hinged upon the fact whether France and England were at peace or at war. Indian corn was not exported to any large extent, but many cargoes of dried peas were sent abroad, and occasionally there were small shipments of oats and beans.

There was also a considerable production of hemp, flax, and tobacco, but not for export in any large quantity. The tobacco grown in the colony was coarse and ill-flavored. It was smoked by both the habitant and the Indian because it was cheap; but Brazilian tobacco was greatly preferred by those who could afford to buy it, and large quantities of this were brought in. The French Government frowned upon tobacco-growing in New France, believing, as Colbert wrote to Talon in 1672, that any such policy would be prejudicial to the interests of the French colonies in the tropical zones which were much better adapted to this branch of cultivation.

Cattle raising made substantial progress, and the King urged the Sovereign Council to prohibit the slaughter of cattle so that the herds might keep on growing; but the stock was not of a high standard, but undersized, of mongrel breed, and poorly cared for. Sheep raising, despite the brisk demand for wool, made slow headway. Most of the wool needed in the colony had to be brought from France, and the demand was great because so much woolen clothing was required for winter use. The keeping of poultry was, of course, another branch of husbandry. The habitants were fond of horses; even the poorest managed to keep two or three, which was a wasteful policy as there was no work for the horses to do during nearly half the year. Fodder, however, was abundant and cost nothing, as each habitant obtained from the flats along the river all that he could cut and carry away. This marsh hay was not of superior quality, but it at least served to carry the horses and stock through the winter.