The Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s “Producing Prosperity in Ontario” policy, designed to draw the attention of the three main political parties in June’s provincial election to the needs and potential of rural communities, is also a refreshing recognition that farmers and the towns and villages of their communities are inextricably linked.
The campaign highlights the potential of the $36.4 billion food producing and processing sectors to distribute growth more evenly across the province. It also argues the need of rural areas for better roads, schools, wider distribution of natural gas and high-speed broadband internet – services required for farmers and residents of towns and villages alike. The OFA points out that spreading prosperity across the province can help reduce growth pressures on large cities like Toronto. “Rural jobs would create affordable communities to alleviate the urban housing and transportation crisis,” said Keith Currie, OFA president.
It’s an exciting change from the drifting apart of the farm community and local urban areas in the last half-century. Growing up on a farm in Kinloss Township in the late 1950s and early 1960s, our farm lives were integrated into that of the nearby village of Lucknow. Monday through Friday we were in “town” every day to attend school (our one-room school had been closed). Saturday night, nearly everyone from the surround-ing farms filled the stores in town shopping for their weekly needs. Sunday my family went to the village’s little Anglican church. In between we spent hours in the arena, either playing hockey or skating.
We went to Treleaven’s mill to get out grain chopped for feed, bought and sold livestock at the auction barn, delivered our eggs to the egg grading station, had our cream picked up to be made into butter at Silverwood’s creamery, and hauled our grain to the little elevator beside the CNR tracks.
The farm and urban communities were knit together by a common interest: the towns providing markets and supplies for farmers and reaping jobs in return. But specialization in both rural and urban life has frayed that fabric to a thread.
Today’s farm economy requires greater scale. The egg grading station and the creamery disappeared long ago and large transport trucks visit my neighbours who produce eggs and milk, trucking these off to distant processors. When they need feed, it’s delivered by a large truck. The railway was once a game-changer for local towns but most branch-lines were closed 30 years ago.
Economies of scale require farms to have more acres with less labour which, combined with smaller fam-ilies, means fewer customers for local businesses. Economies of scale in retailing, combined with consumer desire for greater variety at cheaper prices, sees main street stores empty as people drive by them to regional centres with big box stores. Churches are closing because fewer people attend worship. My village of Blyth, like many others, lost its school.
So the OFA’s re-examination of the potential of rural communities offers new possibilities. It’s often seemed illogical to me to see farm products hauled away from small communities to be processed in cities where real estate for the plant and housing for the plant’s workers are expensive. Of course decisions of plant location are usually made by urban-dwelling executives who don’t see communities as organic creatures. Even our school boards declare their only concern is educating kids, not contributing to the health of communities.
I hope Producing Prosperity in Ontario leads provincial politicians to rethink the role of rural communities in Ontario. I hope, too, it makes local Federations and both farmers and townies realize we’re in this together and we need each other.◊