LETTER FROM ONTARIO
Seven ideas for Strong Rural Communities

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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February 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.
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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 Ontario.

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Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.