The newly elected Pallister government wasted little time putting its stamp on government in this province.
Almost as fast as you can say Ralph Eichler, the provincial department responsible for agriculture got a new name this month: Manitoba Department of Agriculture (MDA).
It has a nice simple ring to it.
But it also reflects a reality that has become increasingly obvious in recent decades. Back in the 1960s, the department was known as Manitoba Agriculture and Conservation, likely because Conservation in those days stood for drainage. Later it became Manitoba Agriculture and Food, then Rural Initiatives/Development was tacked on — a sort of catchall department for anything rural.
It used to be that agriculture and rural were synonymous and their economic agendas interchangeable. Back in the days when small towns throughout the province were built around grain elevators and agricultural services were the primary economic activity, what was good for farming was also good for the rural economy.
No doubt agriculture remains a key economic activity in rural Manitoba. But there are fewer farmers, they farm bigger pieces of land, and they deliver their grain to fewer elevators located farther away.
There are even times when the economic future of rural communities is at odds with agriculture, especially when it comes to squabbles over land use or housing subdivisions built too close to livestock operations (or livestock operations built too close to houses), and farming practices — such as aerial spraying or cleaning out the pits — that offend rural residents planning a barbecue.
Reconciling those competing interests hasn’t been easy. As well, agriculture is no longer a solely rural domain. Urban farming is a growth industry.
Under the new configuration, MDA is about agriculture. The rural development portfolio becomes part of Indigenous and Municipal Relations in a new ministry under Eileen Clarke.
Having a minister to champion the needs of rural communities could be a plus.
Rural Manitoba needs agriculture, but with many farm families dependent on off-farm income, agriculture needs a vibrant and diversified rural economy.
Rural people, including farmers, are more likely than urbanites to be self-employed, a 2010 study by Statistics Canada said. People who know how to create their own jobs are good for the overall economy.
We would add that a strong extension network, with all vacancies filled, is a wise investment in the future of both agendas.
Further diminishing support for public extension in the name of saving money would be false economy — under any name.