The rural landscape is changing, and not for the better.
“Farm and ranch people are an endangered species, without the benefit of protective legislation,” Roger Epp told farmers attending a recent grazing conference in Winnipeg.
“Their habitat has also become subject to persistent encroachment over time.”
Agriculture and rural life on the Prairies were once so closely intertwined, they were seen as inseparable — but that view has changed, said Epp, a political scientist and author of We are All Treaty People: Prairie Essays and a co-editor of Writing Off the Rural West.
“Increasingly, experts and policy-makers are tempted to disconnect the future of rural communities from the future of agriculture, because they see these paths diverging,” he said.
That is a profound shift, said Epp, a professor at the University of Alberta and founding dean of its Augustana Campus in Camrose.
There was a time when national policy saw Prairie settlement as integral to grain production, he said. To that end, a national railway system was developed, treaties signed, experimental farms set up, and immigrants recruited. That view changed in the 1960s, specifically in 1969 when a federal report followed the American lead pointing to larger farms and a move away from the “homestead” model, said Epp.
Since that time the number of farms and farm families has dwindled across Canada. According to Statistics Canada, the number of farmers dropped by 40 per cent between 1998 and 2001.
“Rural Canada, especially rural Western Canada, is in trouble,” he said. “The most striking disappearance for me, as I look at it, is not the disappearances of the… country grain elevator, which didn’t take very long, it’s the disappearance of the farmers.”
Today, government’s focus is shifting away from producers and towards production, and that’s not a good thing for farmers, said Epp.
He pointed to the current attention on how global food production needs to be ramped up in order to feed a burgeoning population and rising middle class. That issue shouldn’t be used to justify a push towards even larger farms, lower margins and further rural depopulation, he said.
“Sometimes this is dressed up in moral terms,” he said. “There is an obligation on the part of farmers to feed a hungry world — to pick a phrase out of the air — it sounds like a corporate slogan.”
Farmers need to stop thinking of themselves as “producers” and start thinking more about local food production, he said.
The yield difference between industrial farm operations and smaller farms is negligible, and local production is key to creating food security and bringing people back to the rural landscape, he said.
“A shift towards local production, not as a fad, not as a solution (with a) capital S, but as a way of helping to tilt the balance away from this single-minded, long-distance, few-processing-point system,” said the professor.
In Camrose, Epp spearheaded a program to use locally produced food in the university cafeteria, which required creating demand, developing value chains and working creatively in a colder environment. It didn’t happen overnight, but two years later the cafeteria is sourcing 80 per cent of its food from local farmers.
“It is possible,” he said.
Farmers should be able to make a decent profit without having to have massive operations, said Epp, noting that while farmers’ share of profits has fallen in recent years, those of agribusiness have increased steadily.
It’s no small task, but farmers and ranchers need to address the future of rural communities and farming now, before another generation slips away, he said.
“Who will own the countryside? Who will produce food? Who will have access to farm knowledge and on what terms,… who will care for the land?” said Epp. “These are the questions of food security, and they are questions we need to ask.”