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Wednesday, 28 August 2013 15:03

Alberta’s rural landscape is shifting

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Funny how cyclical things can be.

On the one hand, with many government policies and big business decisions, living in the rural area is more difficult.
The prairie landscape is changing as urban areas continue to grow. Alberta Agriculture offices were all but wiped out in rural areas. Businesses pick up and leave as important infrastructure is removed, i.e. railways. A town such as Vauxhall knows what can happen when a rail line is abandoned as it loses two of its more major agriculture-based processing plants. Populations slowly started to dwindle as hospitals and schools closed in places such as Empress.
The mentality of centralization seems to prevail in big corporations and governments as it’s easier for them to concentrate on fewer areas and not have to worry about so many offices.
Large centres continue to grow as does the population of Alberta. Alberta grew by 200,000 people between 2012 and the summer of 2013.
In Edmonton, the population was 817,498 and has grown to about 847,000 people by this summer. Calgary grew by 30,000 people from June 2012 to June 2013. It now sits at 1,149,552 residents.
People from other provinces or countries are flocking to where there are jobs.
In the rural area and smaller centres the increase is not so defined. In Lethbridge, the numbers are more modest as the city sits at 90,417 residents in 2013 and increase from 89,074 and in Medicine Hat, the numbers were nearly stagnant with a minimal increase (61,180 residents in 2012 and increase from 2009’s 61,097). There are workers from other countries moving to these smaller cities and the rural areas because of agriculture work, much of it with larger-scale farms.
The modest “family farm” is disappearing from the Alberta landscape which is quite sad. It’s been a longtime part of the Alberta economy and a way of life —a reminder of a much simpler time. While family farms are acknowledged to a degree (i.e. Alberta Century Farm and Ranch Awards, BMO Farm Family Awards), those type of operations have to continue either to grow or be forced to sell out. There’s money to be made in agriculture, otherwise nobody would be in it.
However, with the only way to grow in agriculture being to buy up smaller operations, it’s sometimes easier for small farms to sell out to larger ones. Those people end up moving to the cities to find employment or just retiring.
Some residents in the rural areas are hanging in there. An Alberta government-sponsored event called Open Farm Days took place Aug. 24-25.
While it’s a good initiative, in in fact put a spotlight on the change in rural Alberta. Big commercial operations don’t seem to want the attention and there aren’t a lot of smaller operations left that mix marketing or have the time to take part because of a lack of manpower. There were only three southeast Alberta farms participating and only one true small farm in the southwest (Trail’s End Beef-Nanton) along with Heritage Acres Farm Museum (near Pincher Creek), and the Fort Museum of the North West Mounted Police also taking part.
Whitla’s Lynn Olsen said it should be alarming for those in the region there’s only three southeast agriculture operations who wanted to participate in Open Farm Days.
Etzikom’s Melissa Lanz from the Bitter Water Rescue Ranch said it’s difficult to get her operation’s message out there, especially in the southeast corner where there’s not a lot of communities left.
“In southeast Alberta, it is a far distance to go to get somewhere,” Lanz explained in an interview. “It’s not like around Calgary where you go every 15 miles and there’s a (tourist/business) attraction. There’s not a fourth generation farm everywhere now.”
Farm operations are getting bigger in order to survive. There’s no chance someone who wants to get into agriculture can do so without inheriting the land and the equipment or has a ton of money to invest into initial start-up costs. Counting on government to give incentives to small farm operators to stay in business is a pipe dream.
The landscape of rural Alberta seems to be changing and that’s a shame. Funny thing though — people in the urban areas are starting to want direct-from-farm products because they don’t know what’s being added to their food.
A number of smaller butcher shops/meat processing operations are starting to pop up and grow (i.e. TLC Farms) and places such as Arrowhead Ranches, which was also part of Open Farm Days, are quickly becoming more popular because consumers want more natural foods.
The landscape is changing, but hopefully some semblance of the way it used to be will continue.
Ryan Dahlman is managing editor with the Prairie Post. Contact him with your comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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Ryan Dahlman

Managing Editor