Hamiota on the Move

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

The conventional view of small rural communities holds that they are generally in decline. So when I asked Ed Brethour, Hamiota’s Economic Development Officer, to identify his biggest challenge, his answer was unexpected: “It’s making sure we have enough day care for all the young families that are moving to Hamiota.”

Pardon me. Young families moving into an agricultural community of about 850 people in southwestern Manitoba? What’s this all about?

Hamiota’s people, it turns out, have had enough of pessimism, enough of doom and gloom, and most certainly enough of being told that they cannot make it. And the story of their relative success indicates how it might be replicated elsewhere.

Hamiota’s community leaders have a “take charge” attitude and are willing to take risks and spend money to make things happen. As a consequence, the recent census identified the town, like Winkler and Steinbach, as an agricultural community whose population is actually rising.

What happened? First, the federal and provincial governments grappled with a few fundamentals. The former cancelled the Crow’s Nest subsidy on raw grain, which had discouraged the livestock and food processing industries. The latter cancelled Manitoba Pork’s marketing monopoly, which spurred efficiency in the hog business. Ed Brethour notes that Hamiota and the surrounding municipality did the rest, by encouraging local expansion. The town now serves as the head office for Premium Pork, a major player in Manitoba’s hog industry.

The community embraced the opportunity in a very orderly fashion. Town officials held community meetings to explain the hog industry, often the target of environmental fear-mongers. For those with further concerns, the industry and community sponsored visits to existing pork facilities so people could see firsthand the technology that goes into modern hog-raising.

Now people not only work in hog barns, but at jobs in the feed and transportation sectors as well. In Manitoba overall, the hog industry has produced over 12,000 jobs, with potential for a lot more. Brethour notes that Hamiota’s future is tightly bound to agriculture and agricultural processing. “We are building on our strength,” he says.

With little in the way of tourism or manufacturing — although this may change in the future — Hamiota has hit pay dirt by playing to its agricultural strength. In fact, as Brethour points out, the absence of a tourism industry was actually an advantage. Opponents of hog expansion always cite the potential loss of tourists — real or imagined — as a reason to disallow growth in the livestock business. Hamiota never had any to lose.

Hamiota’s local government did its part by building infrastructure. Water quality is maintained by a state-of-the-art “nano-filtration” system. Other amenities include sport facilities, a health centre with five doctors, and senior housing. There’s even a rapidly developing new subdivision. Hamiota was not afraid to make judicious public investments where they make sense. Bethour also notes that the Town and Rural Municipality work well together, not always the case in other regions.

Hamiota is now working on acquiring an ATT cell phone tower and is exploring the possibility of wireless high speed Internet. Brethour and his fellows know that business expansion requires modern communication and data management. But he cautions that these tools will be expensive and are being held back by a lack of information on the direction that the Province of Manitoba is taking to promote rural technology.

Hamiota is an impressive community with a bright future, not the model of decline the doomsayers might predict. We can learn from its success.