New papers connect agri-food value chain to rural development

The value chain that serves and includes primary producers must be strong if the sector as a whole is to succeed. With that in mind, the Rural Ontario Institute has produced a collection it calls the Rural Ontario Foresight Papers. They explore particular topics that reflect the challenges and opportunities for rural and northern Ontario.

The papers, written by expert authors, cover place-specific policy, the impact of megatrends on rural development, broadband infrastructure, rural business succession, volunteerism and the visitor economy, which is about drawing visitors to rural amenities.

The papers look towards directions various stakeholders, governments or non-profits might follow to foster rural development, in light of the trends and opportunities the authors foresee. The institute chose the topics based on consultations with its stakeholders, which include farmers.

Basic rural framework required

“Farmers need a basic rural framework in place so they have schools their kids can attend, a workforce to draw from and other necessities that serve the agri-food value chain,” says Norman Ragetlie, the institute’s director of policy and stakeholder engagement.

One paper by author David Freshwater, called Growth Beyond Cities: Place-Based Rural Development Policy in Ontario, has caught the attention of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture. 

In the paper, Freshwater notes the sheer size and diversity of rural Ontario means that for any policy to be effective, the province has to deal with various rural circumstances in different ways. 

Economic development benefits for all

So called one-size-fits-all policies are no longer effective, he says. Rather, clear economic development opportunities exist in rural Ontario that could benefit both the people living in these areas and the province collectively. 

 “To realize these opportunities will require the introduction of a policy framework that supports local rural development initiatives,” Freshwater says, adding that in this regard, Ontario is similar to other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development where there are similar ongoing challenges in identifying appropriate policies to support rural growth.

Another paper about broadband infrastructure, by Catherine Middleton, argues that modern agribusiness needs access to high-speed Internet, just like urban businesses do. The same goes for on-farm businesses, which are disadvantaged because of slow Internet speed and spotty coverage. Likewise, farmers engaged in innovative production approaches - precision agriculture and advanced data aggregation, for example - require better bandwidth than most of them have access to now.    

Two other papers are particularly pertinent to farmers.

Rural succession plans needed

In one paper, Rural Business Succession: Innovation Opportunities to Revitalize Local Communities, author Paul Chamberlain notes how many rural businesses do not have succession plans. If they simply close down their operations once the owners retire, there’ll be a void in the farm community that depends on them.

And in the paper “The Visitor Economy and Rural Cultural Amenities” author Christopher Fullerton notes the growing interest in rural tourism experiences based on agriculture such as food trails, farmers’ markets, on-farm bed and breakfasts and culinary tourism. These activities have flourished and become a cultural phenomenon, but they’ll require support and policies to endure.

OFA president Keith Currie has praised the institute’s effort to raise rural issues in this way. He says the federation “was pleased to see these papers underscore the importance of our rural communities.”

The papers can be viewed at ruralontarioinstitute.ca/foresightpapers

Bottom line

Strong rural economic development policies are key to revitalizing communities, but gone are the days of one-size-fits-all plans. 

Article by: Owen Roberts