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The Higher ED Blog: Agriculture offers more than just food to rural communities

Hannah Main / June 13, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: Agriculture offers more than just food to rural communities

I was driving to one of the farms I was studying for my major research paper (for the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development master’s program) when I saw a curious sight in a small, rural community in Nova Scotia. There was a bridge over a river, and all along the sides of this bridge there were children’s school bags and signs. As I pulled my car over to take a closer look, I understood the meaning of this spectacle. It was a poignant protest by the community against the impending closure of their small school. The school closure was just a symptom of a larger problem: the dwindling population and lack of services in rural Nova Scotia.

What does this scene have to do with agriculture? As it turns out, a whole lot more than you might think. As the fabric holding together rural communities continues to unravel, the right kind of farm can bring benefits to these communities besides just producing food and fibre. Multifunctional farms can create jobs and bring revenue to rural areas while preserving the rural environment and way of life. For economic developers, multifunctional farms may be part of the solution for rural revitalization.

When farms are multifunctional, they become what UW researcher (and my supervisor) Clare Mitchell refers to as “hybrid spaces.” Traditionally, we see farms as production spaces. The farm produces the primary goods of food and fibre and people consume these goods elsewhere. In multifunctional agriculture, the farm still produces traditional agriculture goods, but also produces other, non-concrete goods. For example, I studied an organic dairy farm in Nova Scotia that also produces cheese and sells it on-farm. This farm produces milk and cheese, but also produces other, less quantifiable things: by meeting organic standards, it produces protection of the landscape. The farm also produces an experience for the tourist who drops by the on-farm shop.

These non-commodity outputs that farms produce have positive impacts on the community around them. For example, a farm that uses organic methods helps protect the environment and biodiversity. A farm that does on-farm processing adds value to their goods, thus bringing more money into the community, and possibly creating jobs. A farm that practices agritourism—broadly defined as any type of tourism that is connected with agriculture—protects the community’s landscape and culture by commodifying it, while also bringing outside dollars into the community.

To illustrate, a mixed family farm in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia, was struggling to make a profit in traditional agriculture production. The farm owners valued the rural lifestyle and instead of making a choice to give up the family business, they decided to diversify. Today, they still produce fruits and vegetables, but they also offer an on-farm market, U-Pick, petting zoo, tours, and other activities that attract tourists. Agritourism in this case benefits the community in a number of ways. First, it increases the profit of the farm, meaning that the farm can stay open and in fact hire up to 60 employees from the surrounding area. Second, unlike other higher-impact types of tourism, agritourism protects the current culture and way of life by turning these into a commodity that tourists consume. In the case of this farm, and in fact in the case of other agritourism businesses in Nova Scotia, agritourism takes what farms are already doing and sells it as an experience. The production process becomes a consumption process as visitors experience farm life. These agritourism businesses are therefore hybrid spaces.

As many young and skilled people flee rural Nova Scotia for better-paying jobs and the seductive creative class lifestyle elsewhere, there are some who choose to stay. In my research of agritourism farms in Nova Scotia, I discovered that the people who operate these multifunctional agriculture businesses always have post-secondary education. Not all of them were from rural Nova Scotia, and not all of them had an agriculture or tourism background, but all of them had been educated outside of rural Nova Scotia and had chosen to return or move to rural Nova Scotia.

As economic development practitioners in rural areas, this tells us something important. It can be discouraging to see the youth outmigration rates and the economic depression in our rural communities. We may look for strategies to retain or bring people to our rural area. Instead, we should focus on the people who choose to come here to stay because of a desire for the rural lifestyle. We cannot compete with urban areas for people or jobs because we will surely lose. But agriculture is one industry that is embedded in rural communities. In Nova Scotia, the people who do multifunctional agriculture are rooted in the rural community. They live there. Their children go to school there. They employ people from there. While investment flows away from rural areas into larger centres, there are some who stay and continue to invest in rural areas. We must find them and we must support them.

 

About the author

Hannah Main completed her MRP for the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development program on agritourism and rural development in Nova Scotia in May 2016. She lives in Truro, Nova Scotia, and is passionate about sustainable rural development. She tweets @hannahmain.

About the series                                                                                      

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

 

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