Schoepp: Loss of extension services left a hole in rural communities

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Rural communities across Canada struggle to maintain their schools, businesses and workforce.

Often, the lack of services, slow broadband, isolation and a restricted range of jobs offering decent wages contribute to the exodus of the young population towards the large centres.

In several provinces, the dismantling or complete elimination of agricultural extension services has also contributed to this attrition. When the extension office disappeared, the hub was missing in the wheel of agricultural information and service exchange.

Today, much of the farm information comes from service providers. To be fair, these are often community members as well, but this can create information bias and restrict much of the interaction and debate needed for creative thinking.

It is when we come together that the sparks of humanity fly and the imagination grows bold. We just can’t get that ignition from the web or from a phone call. This is probably why field days are so busy, because groups of like-minded people can share ideas and challenge each other.

Is there a benefit to bringing extension services back into the rural landscape?

The idea of ​​a community is to build resilience at the core so that members can collectively survive the turbulent social and economic waves that hit us all. Community is to our souls what food is to our bodies—it nourishes us, sustains us, and strengthens us.

It’s not just a roadside room and a few potlucks. It is a chosen family.

The return of agricultural extension allows the inhabitants of the area to have continuity in contacts and information.

Think of a topical issue like climate change. There are a multitude of federal programs to help farmers, each with a different purpose and application process. The climate targets, however, are dictated by the federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change. We may not envision electric tractors with 500hp under the hood – but someone else does and the mandates reflect achieving that over the next 7.5 years. But we’re over seven years away from replacing the energy density of a high-traction diesel with electric (and it’s pretty hard to recharge in the field). Having someone to interpret this information and find relevant resources and present options is important because most farmers don’t have the time.

When there is a problem, the community can resolve it collectively and bring in external support contacts that the hub can maintain. It is essential that solutions are created by those who live with the problem and are supported by those who can sympathize with the region and its people.

In the absence of extension, some communities have found or formed their own ways to keep agriculture at heart. An example is Altario in eastern Alberta, where the local school is the agricultural hub as children in grades K-12 operate the student-run farm. The school provides the community with an agricultural residence to share knowledge. Gathering food and selling it teaches fundamental business skills that are needed in the future farms and businesses these children will own. And probably, they will settle near their home port.

Centralizing resources specific to a community ensures the message is targeted for that climate, culture, and location. It is difficult to have an economic plan based solely on diverse voices. Diverse voices are needed but the point of intersectionality can be silenced. Progress will not happen without a framework and a system to bring it all together.

The agricultural hub of tomorrow may not look like the extension office of yesterday.

The new could include virtual training, a kitchen to create food products, a climate simulator, a digital laboratory and an educational garden. This could include Zoom rooms, classrooms, a game room, and a field of dreams where seeds are planted and ideas grow. The center could coordinate and promote many agricultural activities in the region and work with exhibition boards, educational institutions, service boards, regional councils, service providers and a host of other collaborators.

A gathering place to grow is not only creating economic value for the territory, it is feeling valued as a member of the community and as an actor in agriculture. Pulling up extension was emotionally draining for extension workers and the farming community.

Not everyone wants to move. What they want is choice. They want to have a say in community decisions and in shaping their future. And they need to know that resources are available to them.

The extension office was that kind of resource—a central place to gather and share ideas and solutions specific to this area. The re-establishment or creation of national agricultural centers where there is interdepartmental information and advice, exposure to the latest technology and science, and a welcoming cup of coffee is needed. For it is in agriculture that we build thriving, sustainable and resilient communities and cultivate a culture of care.

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