Creating a New Rural Renaissance

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Recent writings about desperation in rural Manitoba made me want to cry or, alternately, ask my neighbours, “Will the last one to leave turn out the lights?” The bleak picture portrayed has some truth but other futures are possible. Here’s one.

First the bad news. The trend of low grain prices will continue. An analysis of 200 years of data by Nesbitt Burns revealed that commodity prices, adjusted for inflation, peaked during the War of 1812. Trends have been downhill ever since with the odd increase during wars or natural disasters. Downward trends will continue as primary producers become relentlessly more efficient. This scenario by itself would result in a rural Manitoba with 13 mega-farms, each of one million acres, plus 13 towns, one to serve each farm. Please close the door when you leave.

But, be careful about extrapolating such trends too far. In the 1970’s they (whoever “they” are) said the world was running out of oil, food, and most natural resources. It didn’t happen. Technology, human ingenuity, and the general unpredictability of the universe often make a mockery of the prediction expert who is the current “fad of the month.” The future of rural Manitoba is also difficult to predict.

Solving the rural “crisis” means determining the proper frame of reference. The pessimists define “Rural” as equal to “Farm” while I define “Rural” as “Farm plus Everything Else Out There That Makes Money.” It doesn’t matter whether your community is supported by farm dollars, forestry dollars, tourism dollars, or mining dollars, or some combination thereof. The important thing is to get dollars into your community. Rural families often have multiple sources of income. Our household, for example, has 6 forms of income each of which looks small but “collectively” they add up to a living. I also include “income-in-kind” i.e. the moose meat in the freezer, the woodpile, a well-stocked pantry and 80 bottles of homemade wine. All a form of “non-taxable income”, if you will.

Rural economies are actually inhibited by a focus on grain agriculture. Governments are, unfortunately, organized along sector lines and you CANNOT get an agricultural policy maker (I’ve tried) to believe that all “dollars” are just as good as wheat “dollars” or that the best farm program promotes a well-diversified rural economy. Single commodity farm support programs (e.g. x dollars per cultivated acre) inhibit rural adaptation by artificially promoting one enterprise over another. The best rural programs promote the entire rural economy, focus on a region’s strengths, create a business climate for investment, use environmental conservation as a form of rural development, and support key infrastructure developments.

Here’s another future that is as likely as the pessimist’s. The Telecommunication revolution has made anything possible. Let me explain. When we first moved to the “bush” in 1979 there were 8 people on our party line and our ring was “one long and two short.” I still live here but the world’s information is at my disposal (a dubious blessing, I’ll grant you). Email allows us to carry on a consulting practice, send documents, keep up with the stock market, access databases, and take tourism bookings. For the first time, rural people are NOT at an information disadvantage compared to city folks. We can organize politically, keep abreast of government policy, get new ideas, and read newspapers from around the world. I know of farmers who check prices via the Internet, rural engineers who consult with international clients, a local storekeeper who publishes books, and rural tourism businesses with web sites.

Rural areas should use these technologies to attract people from the so-called “information industries.” I just know there are consulting engineers, stock brokers, biologists, designers, artists, policy analysts, writers, and financial planners who would love to ply their trades from rural Canada. They just need to be shown how. We have low cost real estate, beautiful landscapes, safe communities, and wonderful outdoor recreation without the intellectual isolation that used to characterize rural areas. You can have it all. We do.

What then, is my ultimate vision? Grain farms will get bigger and farm the best land. It’s a fact of life. We will see a thriving livestock industry. We will have value-added processing, micro- enterprises, and assorted support services. Conservation practices will continue to improve. We will see an influx of “knowledge workers” into rural Manitoba once they realize that their net incomes will increase while the work still gets done. Their new knowledge will add value to rural communities and they will become staunch defenders of the rural way of life.

Rural communities need to conceive of alternate futures. We have the product, the landscape, the people, the infrastructure, and the technology. Don’t let it happen to us. Make it happen for us.