New Rural Innovators are Future of Rural Canada

Commentary, Agriculture, Les Routledge

A wise Chinese proverb begins with the opening words, “may you live in interesting times.”

Well, it certainly is an interesting time to be a young and small farm operator on the Prairies these days.

While the debate about the future of the Canadian Wheat Board and large multi-national grain companies has largely subsided, it seems that changes are happening out in farm country that are not being given the proper attention they deserve.

Largely hidden from the public is the emergence of a new breed of farmer who doesn’t rely on multi-national companies or government to make a living.

It is nearly once a week that I am meeting another small farm operator who lives and farms within 30 or 40 miles of my farm. While I have applied the term “new rural homesteaders” to these people in the past, I think that I need to look at re-defining them to be the “new rural innovators.” For the most part, they are breaking all of the accepted rules and going against the received wisdom that on the prairies, farming has to be bigger to be better.

By relying on the Prairie pioneering ethic of self-sufficiency and independence, these farmers are breaking new ground. Instead of relying on a capital intensive model of farming, these producers are employing a variety of paths to making a living off of a limited land base. To me, there is no reason why small farms (i.e. under 640 acres) cannot be a commercially-viable undertaking in Manitoba. The secret is to forget about selling raw commodities to export markets through multinational companies or the Wheat Board. If a train moves it, then do not grow it!

While this model is new to Manitoba, it is much more common in B.C., Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces.

These small farmers are breaking new ground by employing “disruptive technologies” that don’t conform to existing competition models. A good example of a “disruptive technology” is another field is the Internet. It was never believed that it would be as commercialized as it has become. Twenty years later, the Internet is now a central part of the business model employed by telephone and computer companies, such as AT & T and Bell Canada, which run Internet protocol networks.

This can also be illustrated by looking at the emergence of “open source” software systems. This model shows the tendency to move away from “shrink wrap” software producers. As a result of this trend, new software applications are being converted to operate on a “free” open source software platform, instead of relying on expensive proprietary products. This seems to be the wave of the future as far as computer technology goes.

Agricultural production nowadays is embarking on a comparable path, product-by-product. Farmers are now embracing heritage breeds of plants and animals in their production, as an alternative to reliance on commercial mono-culture operating models. Moreover, farmers are no longer satisfied with simply selling into large international commodity markets. Many are now focusing on newer niche markets, such as organic farming, limited food miles, low carbon, or ethnic food markets.

I can envision the emergence of a new type of agricultural production based on an equivalent of “open source” software. In 20 years, I believe technology-use licenses will be history.

This is because the current “proprietary technology” and mono-culture mode of agricultural production is vulnerable. It cannot deal with sudden changes in production or in the business environment. Changes such as weeds, crop and animal diseases, are becoming much more resistant to “chemical” management techniques. For example, hog production was doing very well in Manitoba, until issues such as currency value, feed market, or trade environment changes, came around.

If there is not enough diversity in agricultural production and business models, we will see more train wreck situations where the mainstream and commodity farmers have to go running cap in hand to governments to bail them out of another latest crisis. Farmers need another model that is less “brittle” and unresponsive to changes in the trade environments. It is clear that the small farm model on the Prairies that is emerging is well-positioned to deal with these challenges.