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March/April 2009 – Other Measures of Success

Among agricultural press writers there is an ominous joke that Canadian production agriculture will soon—in a matter of decades—be conducted on “one farm”. The term refers to the inexorable trend to bigger, and fewer, production farms. The farm writers jest about competing to get interviews with the lone Canadian farmer, and writing stories that will be read by an audience of one—the same farmer.

If Canadian production agriculture is to avoid the one farm scenario large-scale farmers are going to have to fold the interests of people—towns, schools, community centers—into their business plans.

It can be done.

David Rourke, the forward thinking farmer from Minto, Man., has made a priority of finding a way to keep people in rural areas. With 5,000 acres in grain, and producing (depending on the market) up to 14,000 hogs a year, Rourke isn’t anybody’s idea of a small farmer. Yet part of his focus is maintaining the population and vitality of rural communities. He is a supporter of the small farm conferences held in nearby Boissevain (where I met him several years ago), and his unique set-up, which sees feed wheat from his farm run through an on-farm ethanol plant. The ethanol is sold, the spent grains are fed to hogs, whose manure is spread on the fields to grow more wheat. The operation has a lovely circularity to it, of course, but it employs a half dozen people too.

More important than the production details, was Rourke’s ambition to make the operation a model for other farmers, so they could employ local workers as well. And, recognizing that a pay cheque isn’t enough, Rourke had also invested in Minto’s restaurant, so there was a place to go for coffee or dinner.

A long way to the east, that same year, I saw a fascinating scene played out on a Mennonite farm in Ontario that also proved community can come to the fore in farming. The farm was run by a sect of Mennonites that use modern machinery, but only under certain situations. A hay wagon, drawn by a team of workhorses, made its way around a field, collecting loose hay (by means of an ingenious horse-powered conveyor—and no, I can’t describe it). Atop the stack, two boys forked hay while a sturdy, bearded man minded the reins. When the wagon was loaded the team took it to a barn where the loose hay was muscled into a stationary baler powered by a tractor. The bales then made their way, via a noisy conveyor, to the upper floor of a barn where still more workers, young and old, stowed them. The litmus for the use of the old and new technologies, it was explained to me, was their benefit or harm not to production or the bottom line but to. . . community. Technology that kept people working together was good; that which sent a man off by himself (a tractor and baler, for example) was not good. Hence the stationary baler.

Different priorities, different measures. That’s what is needed if we are to arrest and perhaps counter the march of corporate economics to a depopulated rural landscape.

For more on David Rourke, see the February, 2009 issue of Canadian Farm Manager, available at farmcentre.com