The Dynamics of Family Farming in North Huron County, Ontario. Part I. Development Trajectories

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In southern Ontario, as in many other regions, the histories of farming and rural communities are closely intertwined. During much of the twentieth century, family farming served as the primary engine of local rural economies and largely defined rural society (Fuller 1990; Smithers and Joseph 1999). Rural settlements provided the social and economic infrastructure needed to support farm businesses and farm households, and farmers in turn focused much of their economic and social life towards these places. Consequently, there existed not only a sense of shared progress but also a tangible interdependency that formed a foundation for many mutually supportive interactions. Today, both family farming and rural communities in Canada are changing in response to myriad forces, ranging from the local to the global, and many of the once common and well understood connections between these two spheres of rural life have been lost and replaced by new ones: interactions that all too frequently take the form of contestation and conflict (Smithers and Joseph 1999; Joseph et al. 2001). What are the broad contours of this change?

On the farm side, there has been a well-documented shift to more industrialised forms of food production. Traditional systems of farming have been replaced by systems of production characterised by a high degree of mechanisation and intensification where capital and technology and other purchased inputs have substituted for labour (National Research Council 1989; Troughton 1997; Marsden 1998). Additionally, the geography of commodity marketing and input procurement has been fundamentally altered. The highly productive farms that dominate Canada's agricultural system are increasingly linked with agribusiness, government (through agricultural policy and programes) and financial institutions for their markets and critical inputs (Wallace 1992). Hence, they are less dependent upon communities as places of exchange and service provision. Indeed, many of the traditional and more supportive forms of interaction between farm and community, such as local marketing of agricultural products or local purchasing, either no longer occur or are relegated to a less significant role. Such developments have led to the assertion that the critical relationships in agriculture are now more often vertical than horizontal (Marsden 1998).

On the community side, the pace and scope of change has been equally significant. Increasingly, rural settlements serve functions and supply services that extend well beyond agriculture and food production. The resulting 'new' rural economy may be characterised as a mosaic in which agriculture represents but one of many economic activities (Van den Bor et al. 1997) and where the preeminence of farming as the foundation of the rural economy is no longer assured. Similarly, urbanisation of the countryside through non-farm residential development and the dispersion of economic and social activities from urban core areas have altered the social fabric of many rural areas (Bryant and Johnston 1992; Marsden 1998). Attention is now being drawn increasingly to shifting power relations among and between rural residents and how these find expression in public policy and manifest themselves in different community development strategies (Bryden 1994; Gertler 1994; DeLind 1995; Joseph et al. 2001).

Against this backdrop of long-term change, a variety of farming 'models' are appearing in Ontario and elsewhere. While intensive production-oriented agriculture is one possible direction, a range of other possibilities exist and are, in evidence, in many other jurisdictions (Bowler et al. 1996). Similarly, many of the generally understood and somewhat bucolic interactions between farm and non-farm actors are being redefined. Specific instances of new economic development of land-use conflict provide insights relating to particular places and events, but this is a partial view indeed. …


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