This year's Ontario Heritage Conference was all about rural communities, and there were the expected presentations about saving barns and old churches. But the remarkable thing about the conference was the strong environmental theme, with the tone set by John Ikerd, a retired professor of agricultural economics. He laid out a vision of revitalized, relocalized rural communities that would solve energy and environmental problems through the production of " solar powered renewable energy and renewability machines"- plants.
He notes that times are tough on the farm now.
John Ikerd on the Cost of Cheap Food
Farming has changed, and with it rural communities;
Soil now is nothing more than something to prop up the plants and add the chemicals. We turned our farms into factories without roofs and our animals move into biological assembly lines.
He noted that one big CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) replaces up to 500 traditional farms; no wonder our rural communities are depopulating. It is killing the communities:
We are at a critical time in agriculture and cannot go on. if towns are really lucky they can get a prison. If you cannot get that, maybe a landfill. and if all else fails, a CAFO. This model of rural economic development will not work.
It is also a time of great possibilities, we are going through a period of great transformation. we are moving out of the industrial era and into something fundamentally different. The big question is the one of sustainability. We have gone though decades of extraction, and its gone. so how do we meet the needs of the present without diminishing the needs of the future?
There is a growing realization that when you use up the productivity of nature and of people you realize that there is no place to get anything anymore. The financial crisis, the gulf. we cannot continue to extract and exploit. Going through the transition we must rethink every aspect of our lives and when we are done our lives will be fundamentally changed.
He concluded with a vision of a repopulated rural America.
The cities of the future will be looked at as being obsolete, and there are logical reasons for people to disperse. In the future we ill have clusters of dense but small communities, where people will spend most of their lives.....Rural people people must choose which aspects of their lives and culture they want to preserve, and which they will have to let go. The future of communities will be built on lasting value. We can discard the crap that we are building now, and new American farms will be built on the insights from the past. The factory pig farms, they can be razed to the ground or left as a monument to our stupidity.
The structures of the future may be new and energy efficient, but will be built on the ideas of the past. Rural places have great opportunities. Many still have water and air and a sense of belonging and caring, of being a part of something bigger than yourself. And the preserved architecture is the most visible sign of the viability of a community.