Adapting to New Realities

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

“Rural Canada: Moving Forward or Left Behind?” read the title of a recent conference in Regina. A good topic that sought to “explore the changing relationship between rural society and the rest of Canada”, it illuminated a gaping divide in our national attitude towards life outside of cities.

The key questions for agricultural regions were asked. What is our place in society? What should we expect from Canada at large? Most importantly, how we can adapt to a rapidly changing world? Secondarily, the question turned to how government should respond to rural issues. Public policies should be efficient, targeted, effective and should try to make all citizens, rural and urban, better off. Easy to say, tough to do.

Some of the conference speakers struck out in a supremely “rationalistic” direction. Basically they said,” There’s nothing special about rural communities. It is not fair to ask the larger society to support them, especially when agricultural communities are in a natural state of decline. Financial support for agriculture just delays the inevitable.”

Not so long ago, such negative ideas were never expressed, but they are now. This reflects our surrounding society’s astonishing detachment from those activities that literally “put bread on the table.” At the same time, it should be noted, the larger society is placing increasing environmental demands on rural communities, especially farmers. To us nothing is owed, but of us much is demanded.

Rural citizens had better understand these negative trends or we will turn into so much chaff in the wind. What are we doing, right or wrong, to deal with them?

If we are to survive and grow, a single focus on one activity, to the exclusion of other rural opportunities, will not work. It’s much better to create the economic conditions “out here” that maximize all rural incomes, regardless of their source. A rural family doesn’t really care where the dollars come from, just that there are dollars.

But some dollars work better than others. In the face of declining public support for dead-end subsidies, an important distinction is relevant. One example. A half-century ago, the Province of Manitoba embarked on a policy of rural electrification. It made no economic sense from the narrow angle of costs and benefits, because few individual farms could defray the full expense through power rates. But wiring farms set the stage for an explosion in farm productivity that undoubtedly benefited the whole province.

Traditional farm subsidies worked in an opposite manner. They discouraged value-added activity, and their gradual phase-out has brought impressive results. Industries like potato processing, oat milling, hog processing and forage exports are booming and keep many rural families solvent by providing off-farm jobs. Throw in the potential for light manufacturing, tourism, and new opportunities in the “information industry” and we have the seeds of that rural renaissance.

The advantages of superior environmental quality, more personal security and a lower cost of living make rural life look pretty good. The state of Colorado is growing by 2000 people per month and its governor notes that “America’s brightest people want to live in her most beautiful places.” The result is a burgeoning high tech industry throughout the Mountain States and in some of the most unlikely places, such as Bozeman, Montana.

Whether it’s telecommunications, highways, environmental regulation, water policy or the whole gamut of public involvement, that’s the recipe in a nutshell: Understand the world as it is, adapt using your natural advantages, diversify, conserve the environment, be innovative, utilize the most modern technology and, most importantly, don’t rely on anyone but yourself and your community.

That’s the positive side of the equation. If they’re allowed to, rural folks will prosper by their own means. They will make it happen if we let them.