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Keeping the rural identity in prairie towns

When Prairie towns grow and change, some may shed their farming roots

It’s strange to think of cities, towns or villages as having an identity. But they all do. And every community, growing or stagnant or dwindling will at many points throughout its run be faced with the existential and difficult question: who am I?

This is especially relevant for the large swath of rural Canadian communities that have their roots in agriculture, and for those same communities that are in the throes of flux.

Farmers believe we’re the roots, feeding the towns and cities near us. And maybe we are. But growth puts pressure on these communities to react to a more diverse, often non-farming demographic. Lawyers and doctors and businesspeople may not want tractors driving down Main Street. They may want other things: spaces they can relate to.

Identity is paramount to every town, village, city. Planning accordingly is important. History is important. And so is change.

“The identity of a city bears on the identity of its citizens, and vice versa,” wrote planning expert Harry Verhaar in his article “Urban Identity: Citizens and their cities.” The urban environment that makes up cities reflects human needs and values, he says. And every city is different. “When we choose to live in cities, it is not for their resources or urban ‘buzz,’ it is because we fundamentally identify with them.”

When towns become cities

I am sitting on a picnic table beside a Wonder Shows carnival game where people are challenged to break empty glass bottles with a ball. If they miss, the ball smacks against a protective layer of tin. It’s very loud. It’s our community’s annual festival.

There are a lot more people here than when I was a child. The town has become a city and that city is still in the middle of significant growth spurt.

Amid this change and amid the pressure put on cities to accommodate a shifting residence base, the farmers who remember when their cities were villages don’t want to be forgotten.

I have found farmers to be relatively quiet about this, talking about these kinds of things in coffee shops and only when they’re asked, as if resigning to leaving these decisions entirely in the hands of the people who went to school for such things: urban planners and politicians. While in some cases, the loss of loyalty to the agriculture sector is a casualty of growth, this isn’t the case across the board.

There are examples of towns and cities in Manitoba that have seamlessly dealt with the changes that come with growth while simultaneously ensuring their farmer base is not only accommodated but allowed to flourish.

Farmers don’t live inside perimeters. Our taxes go to our rural municipalities. But we interact with the communities around us. We spend money in them. We need them. And, in many cases, they need us.

Whether a town or city is an ag-focused city must be an explicit decision made at every level, and it must be made often.

The farming world in Canada is increasingly becoming decentralized, relying less and less on the ma-and-pa service industry. Cities and towns may interpret this as us not needing them like we used to. But this is not the case. I still want the small shop in town to carry tractor parts. I want our local welding outfit to understand the time-sensitive nature of a fix in the middle of harvest. I can’t do it myself.

But, that said, we want our communities to be ag-focused because if they lose that identity, by choice or by accident, the risk is a loss of appreciation for agriculture and a loss of agricultural education.

And, as we are all aware, public trust and social license are real issues that affect our farms. We need agriculture to be front and centre in our communities. We need our communities to identify as agricultural.

The city I am near still does all of these things. But it’s growing fast and the farmers around it are watching. It won’t be long until it will have to face challenges that will call into question its identity, its roots, its history.

The festival is winding down. The game next to me hasn’t had a customer in a while. The fireworks were spectacular. I’m going home to my farm, where the soybeans are thirsty for a slow two inches of rain and our new batch of 10 chickens are starting to lay eggs.

About the author

Columnist

Toban Dyck is a freelance writer and a new farmer on an old farm. Follow him on Twitter @tobandyck or email [email protected]

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