Rural resilience: how the green movement on the farm can help us all

If we protect the food supply, maintain clean water, reduce runoff, and make a nicer looking landscape, we’ll all benefit

Just when you thought it was safe to read a book, I found myself reading one documenting new combinations of things to be scared about.

Simultaneous climate change and peak oil are the worries in Planning for Rural Resilience: Coping With Climate Change and Energy Futures, edited by Wayne J. Caldwell.

More severe weather events are upon us and what you think is the cause (the bomb, the greenhouse effect, greenhouse gases, etc.) is irrelevant. We need to prepare.

Peak oil seems to have been first predicted in the mid-1950s. This is defined as the moment when we’re extracting more oil than will ever be found to replace consumption. Somebody usually discovers more, conserves, drills horizontally, fracks or something.

Regardless, less pollution and more efficient use of resources is its own reward, so the debate can be replaced with action. This book documents some action.

Urbanites don’t know, or forgot, that it takes 10 times the fossil fuel energy to produce one unit of food energy. That doesn’t make sense and we can all do something about it.

I’ve spoken to prairie farmers who no longer use chemical fertilizer because they only get back an increased yield worth about the cost of the fertilizer. Plus, they have to burn up diesel fuel spreading the fertilizer. They use zero-tillage to avoid plowing up the fields. Without spreading fertilizer and plowing, they don’t put as many kilometres on the tractor, so save on repairs. On goes the good business and the environment benefits.

Caldwell and his fellow authors note the benefits of “green infrastructure.” This is defined as “natural vegetation and green technology.” We could use lots of this in the city – trees, rooftop gardens, absorbent asphalt, floating farms near cities on the water, unobtrusive solar and wind power, and on it could go.

The book notes Wellington County in Ontario, which has gone into trees in a big way. They’ve planted more than 1.3 million trees and shrubs, making it “the largest municipal tree-planting program in North America.”

The book documents several demonstration projects, including farms you can visit and work on that have solar showers, earthen ovens, straw-bale buildings and such. On one, you can buy a share of the vegetable crop at the beginning of the season and obtain fresh produce weekly.

Is this tourism, good business, good ecology or the Disneyfication of rural life? It’s probably all of these but no harm done.

These projects connecting rural folk with urbanites might work best in built-up areas where there are lots of people and lots of farms nearby. It’s difficult to imagine tending to my eventual loaf of bread for 101 days in a prairie wheat field.

But the book also documents a Farmers in Schools program that allows the expertise to flow from the farm into the classroom. The students could be in a business class and find out that the “revenue multiplier effect of agriculture is larger than that of any other industry.” This means the farmer buys from the local store, the store owner gets her dry-cleaning done, the dry-cleaner employs someone and so on.

The high multiplier may be as a result of some of the farm’s economic inputs being free – the sun, rain, wind to dry the crop, and fresh air for the livestock. Turning that into food is better than turning fossil fuels into food.

In Britain, farmers are being subsidized to adapt to climate change. Perhaps this should happen in North America, too. If we protect the food supply, maintain clean water, reduce runoff, and make a nicer looking landscape, we’ll all benefit – in the city and in the country.

Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities. 

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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