21, 2003: Andy Mitchell, Secretary of State for Rural
Development, came to southwestern Ontario in early February
to a town hall meeting on "Building Strong Urban and
Rural Communities." Articulate voices from across our
countryside came to the event to share insights and proposals.
Sorting through them leads me to these conclusions.
1. Rural development works best when it is place-based. New
economic developments linked to the diversity of our countryside;
the unique characteristics of our landscapes and our environmental
resources will build long-term community renewal.
2. Public services in the countryside need a different approach
than the models developed in our cities. Closing schools or
hospitals using urban formulas ignores the foundational community
support role that these institutions have long provided.
3. Growing the rural economy should not be defined as finding
new export markets for rural resources. Economic development
in the countryside is about people, jobs and adding value
to primary resources. Make our countryside a great place to
visit, to live and to work, and it will attract the entrepreneurs
and the investments that will match city development.
4. New opportunities are emerging for farming. Farmers need
not scramble to be the low-cost producers for export-markets.
There are openings for farmers to reinvent themselves as producers
of nutrients and health. Consumers may insist on cheap food
but they are willing to pay for health.
5. When small towns and villages become bedroom communities
their economic vitality erodes. The jobs and businesses that
should be helping to maintain the local infrastructure of
roads and services are elsewhere, beyond the reach to local
taxes. Urban centres should help maintain the infrastructure
that their commuters value.
6. Part of the rural advantage is its diversity. There is
no one rural -- no one countryside. When rural communities
build on their unique characteristics - open spaces, cultural
landscapes, historical buildings, managed ecosystems, good
looking farmsteads, recreational developments and great places
to call home - they are building on their strengths.
7. What makes "rural" rural? "Fewer people"
is a simplistic answer. If "rural" means resistant
to change, or old fashioned or close-minded or "the frontier,"
then there is an urgent need for a shake-up. "Rural"
brings to mind neighbours waving as they drive by; yellow
school buses morning and evening; pastoral landscapes dotted
with cattle and sheep, and golden fields of grain just before
harvest. "Rural" is a place of welcome.
The town hall meeting demonstrated there is no shortage of
ideas for strengthening rural communities. There is no lack
of interest in the possibilities for a vibrant countryside.
Action on renewing our countryside should not be far behind.
Elbert van Donkersgoed is the Strategic Policy Advisor of
the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, Canada. CFFO
is supported by 4,500 family farmers across the province of
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