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July/Aug 2008 – Rural & Agriculture Make Strange Bedfellows

It was the late John Webb who first pointed out that rural values are not the same as farm values and, even though rural folk and farm folk share the same house—the countryside—they are often deeply at odds. Elected to our local council on a pro-country/anti-development platform, he hoped to preserve our wild areas and to support farming. Yet, he soon discovered what was pro-rural wasn’t always what supported farming. Pro-rural people battle foreign plant species; all farmers do is plant foreign species; the pro-rural crowd get worked up over a can of hairspray, to say nothing of a tank of Glyphosate; many farmers think Roundup is the best thing since tractor cabs. Pro rural people like peace, quiet and sweet country air; farmers make noise, their cattle bawl at all hours and they spread chicken manure on Sunday mornings.

Maybe they do share the same house, concluded John, but the relationship is more like one between a divorced couple forced by circumstance to begrudgingly share quarters.

Who are the rural folk? Based on my own experience, as well as research we’ve done through the magazine, it is fair to say that they are active or recently retired professionals, reasonably well off and involved in the community. Think high school principal in a Smart Car on his/her way to a roads committee meeting, investment advisor with a passion for horses. The details don’t matter as much as the attitude which is that the countryside is a place for relaxation and pleasure.

The difference between the two groups was brought home to me recently when someone complained about the pigs in our back field. Admittedly not much to look at, the little field is an excellent holding area for sows in the weeks before they farrow, or to fatten a few feeder pigs. It is important to the overall function of our small farm. The comment came from a resident who clearly values a golf-course quality lawn above a functional contribution to the local food movement.

My first reaction was to put more pigs in the area, and throw in a few extra bags of out-of-date bread, so the whole thing looked even more dogpatch. Small farmers face so many adversities that are utterly beyond human control (weather, marketing boards) that the opportunity to get back at a smarmy comment was almost irresistible.

But then I thought about who buys our pork. Several retired professional couples, a publisher, an interior decorator. . . in other words, the rural folk who can give farmers a hard time.

It occurred to me that the same people who are opposed to some of farming’s rougher edges are also the quickest to support locally produced food. The quasi-urban sensibility that finds open burning offensive is also willing to pay $4/dozen for fresh, local, free-range eggs, or $5/lb for organic blue berries. They support local farms with their dollars, which is worth twice as much any pro-farming statement made by wearing a “Farmers Feed Cities” hat.

Besides, compared to the threats to agriculture from corporate monopolies and urban development—on which farmers and their rural neighbours see eye to eye—disagreements on rural issues seem minor. As they say in the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.