By Sandy Casselman
AgriNews Staff Writer
TORONTO – “Welcome to our final in a series of three virtual Teeny Tiny Summits for the 2021-2022 season,” Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)’s Karen Fischer said. “Our theme today is ‘Renewed, Refreshed, and the New Rural’ and I’m really looking forward to hearing our speakers and chatting with you about the new rural and our hopes for moving forward.”
Fischer co-hosted the March 2 virtual event along with her OMAFRA co-worker Carolyn Puterbough. The event’s keynote speakers were Robin Jones and Kathryn Wood, who were there to speak about the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA)’s research report, “Opportunities for Rural Ontario in a Post-COVID world.” Three presentations followed the keynote speakers, each highlighting a related topic. First up was Algoma University’s Dr. Laura Wyper and Lauren Moran, followed by Hastings County’s Andrew Redden, and Ryde Community Co-op director Rebecca Hickey.
“ROMA represents and is a strong advocate for the 420 rural municipalities in Ontario,” Fischer said. “It has been an integral partner in the delivery of Teeny Tiny Summits for a number of years and we are very grateful for its commitment to teeny tiny communities. This multi-year commitment from ROMA has enabled us to bring these high-quality events with renowned speakers to teeny tiny places across Ontario.”
Jones started by giving a backgrounder on Teeny Tiny Summits, noting that the first one was held in Seeley’s Bay. She also explained the partnership between ROMA and OMAFRA in setting up the series.
“There are costs the communities have to bear and that was our original commitment as a ROMA board. OMAFRA was a partner from the beginning to coordinate where the presentations would be held,” Jones said. “Be assured ROMA’s commitment, particularly for the funding side of it, will be there.”
“No better time than now”
First to present were Jones and Wood. The Mayor of Westport, Jones is chair of ROMA, as well as a member of the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO) Rural Caucus, and Wood is president and chief executive officer of Pivotal Momentum Inc.
Jones and Wood took turns walking viewers through their slide presentation, No Better Time Than Now, outlining the realities of rural life, pandemic-induced changes, and next steps for improving rural life and rural business. Some of the changes mentioned included the housing squeeze, impacts on small business, challenges in the labour market, pressures on vital services, and local leaders stepping up to meet various challenges.
“Today we’re going to talk about the origins of the action plan, what’s inside the plan for action, we’re going to take a deeper dive on several priorities, and we really hope that you relate with them,” Jones said. “There are three key takeaways at the end of it. Hopefully, they also resonate with you, and we’re going to talk about what happens next.”
The report’s list of actionable priorities for rural Ontario included expanded and improved digital connectivity as essential infrastructure, creative approach to ensuring full spectrum of housing options, better ways to fund infrastructure maintenance, improved access to services with a special focus on long-term care and healthcare, rethinking growth, and development planning for rural Ontario, and addressing current and future labour force challenges. Jones said the top two concerns they heard involved digital connectivity and housing issues.
The presentation also included a discussion of the many contributions rural Ontario makes to the whole of the province. The idea of collaboration, not just between different sectors but also between urban and rural, was listed as essential in terms of moving forward successfully post-pandemic.
“So, what are our takeaways today? One takeaway is rural Ontario, we are awesome. We have so much going for us that we just don’t take the time to reflect on. So, we’ve got the physical assets, we’ve got human capital, and that also means we’ve got such incredibly hard-working people and, in my community, and in many of yours, your backbone are your volunteers. We are strong if we collaborate,” Jones said.
Another takeaway is the change that’s been occurring since the onset of the pandemic with urban families moving into rural areas in search of a different lifestyle. Rural living is “in high demand right now.” The third takeaway is that Ontario has huge opportunities post-pandemic to be better than ever.
In a final slide, Jones and Wood invited viewers to send their feedback to ROMA. They want to know if their take on the impact of the pandemic is accurate, if their assessment of the future opportunities for rural Ontario is reasonable, and if viewers agree or disagree with the priorities articulated in ROMA’s action plan. The 84-page “Opportunities for Rural Ontario in a Post-COVID World” action plan can be found on the organization’s website (roma.on.ca).
ROMA’s 23 Recommendations
“I want to point out that each of the speakers that follow our keynotes Robin Jones and Kathryn Wood, they all tie back to one of the recommendations within the 23 recommendations within the ROMA plan,” Puterbough said. “We were very deliberate in looking for speakers that shared some examples of those ideas being realized on the ground, as well.”
Following the ROMA presentation, Wyper and Moran talked about “Economic Impacts of COVID-19 for Farmers and Food Processors in Algoma.” Their topic related to ROMA Recommendation 10: capitalizing on the value of local for resilience.
Then, Redden spoke about “Enterprise Facilitation in Hastings County.” His talk was linked to ROMA Recommendation 19: creating local entrepreneurial ecosystems.
The final speaker for the day was Hickey, who took viewers on a tour of her neighbourhood’s co-op, which included information on why and how it was created, as well as how it continues to grow and service the surrounding community. Organizers linked her talk to ROMA Recommendation 11: building on a foundation of community well-being.
“ROMA is in a good place to advocate but so is everybody on this call. There is a provincial election coming up, four months later there’s municipal elections,” Jones said. “If they want to represent you as a rural resident or business owner, do they understand these are the challenges and the opportunities that they need to be wide and deep on so that they can represent you? And so, the same for the municipal elections, these are the questions. This paper [ROMA report] is for you to go to any of your public meetings and ask questions. They should have the answers because we provide a lot of them, or at least they should have thought about how they are relevant to your municipality.”
“Emerging Economic Impacts…”
Moran and Wyper’s presentation, Emerging Economic Impacts on Algoma’s Agri-Food Sector in the Post-Pandemic Era, is based on a partnership between Algoma University’s Economic and Social Development department, Rural Agri-Innovation Network of Algoma (RAIN), and “a wide variety of actors from the local agri-food community.” Contributors included larger commodity farmers, niche growers, food processors, maple producers, as well as representatives from local city and township planning boards.
“RAIN’s mission is to foster a resilient local farm and food sector by helping meet the needs of agricultural organizations, producers, buyers, and agri-entrepreneurs in northern Ontario by providing both intellectual and financial resources,” Moran said.
Moran began the presentation with background information on the partnership and the project, as well as the rationale behind the project. She also discussed the methods that were used in carrying out the research, as well as some of the preliminary findings.
“The overarching goal of this study is to enhance our understanding of unforeseen pressures on the agri-food system that have been taking place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “Our results will, in turn, be used to form the variety of programs and supports that RAIN provides to farmers and food processors. So, the participants who have taken part in our study so far include larger commodity farmers, such as those who are raising cattle or growing forage crops, as well as niche market growers, maple producers, beekeepers, and representatives from local city and township planning works.”
She said most participants were from the Sioux Sainte Marie area, coming from single-tier municipalities or unorganized townships. The study was guided by the overarching question of pandemic-induced impacts on agri-food producers and processors.
“We had quite a good contact list to go off of, and we really aimed to include people from different sectors of the agri-food community,” Moran said. “So, rather than just focusing on one particular subset, we wanted to cast a broad net, so to speak, to get a wide variety of perspectives to try to capture a more representative sample about what they’re all going through.”
Moran listed four of the many interview questions used in the study. What types of trends around Algoma farmland are you seeing from a real estate perspective? Have you shifted production or diversified the types of crops you produce to meet market demand? If finding available land or resources will be a challenge, what are your strategies to move your farm business forward? What do you believe is an important objective that the local agri-food sector should have for long-term planning?
“These are the four themes that we’ve subdivided so far out of our preliminary findings,” she said, referring to labour shortages, increase land cost and access issues, Algoma infrastructure needs, and increasing profits and expansion. “Many of these probably don’t come as a surprise and a lot of them were actually discussed in the previous presentation, just not specific to the agri-food system in particular. So, they’re facing a lot of the same challenges that other industries and individuals are facing.”
She then went a little more in-depth on each of the four themes, beginning with farmers’ struggles to find and retain employees, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. She said farmers who were unable to find employees had to take on the extra work themselves, adding it to an already overloaded to-do list. On a positive note, she said consumer interest in local food has grown during the pandemic. In addition, she said those producers who have found ways to diversify the products they offer have done well.
“So, some of our main takeaways. The pandemic has had unforeseen positive and negative impacts on Algoma’s farming and agri-business community,” Moran said. “What we also hear from quite a few participants is that the support programs offered through RAIN, like SNAPP and the COVID-19 Relief Fund, have provided response capital to expand and sustain their businesses. Many farmers are looking to lean into growing demand for local food by increasing their capacity and diversifying their products.”
To learn more about this project, visit RAIN’s website (rainalgoma.ca). Algoma also has its own “buy local” website (buyalgoma.ca).
“There’s so much more I could dive into, but I wanted to give you a taste of something that I think really helps teeny tiny communities,” Redden said at the outset of his presentation.
His presentation focused on the Enterprise Facilitation program, which he said was developed by Ernesto Sirolli, author of Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies. In addition to inviting Sirolli to visit Hastings County to give a talk on the program, Redden also took the training to become an enterprise facilitation coach. The model has two key elements, the facilitator or coach, and a community resource board.
“This is a program that I’m quite excited about and it’s really all about coaching; coaching people to start businesses and working on their passion that they have to start a business,” he said. “I think this is a really great way to support entrepreneurs in your community, and it’s a system that has worked really well in very rural communities.”
Ryde Community Co-op
The final presentation of the day was delivered by Hickey, who took viewers on a virtual tour of the Ryde Community Co-op.
“Just sharing some of the things that the Ryde Community Co-op has been doing,” she said. “We are always open but since the pandemic, we kind of had to make a shift in what we do. So, I’m excited to share this opportunity with everyone of what’s been happening in the co-op and hoping that it demonstrates to everyone what volunteer time and energy can accomplish.”
The co-op was created by a group of volunteers who now work with local government and community organizations. Hickey said it’s a “community hub” resting on five acres in Gravenhurst, Ontario.
One of the programs born out of the pandemic is the Ryde Co-op Food Pantry, which is a self-serve outdoor food pantry open 24 hours per day, every day. People can visit and take whatever they need without having to register or identify themselves, as it’s a completely anonymous service. The pantry is restocked by volunteers regularly.
Hickey also spoke about the Gravenhurst Against Poverty Meals, which delivers full meals to registered participants. The co-op also offers free personal hygiene and healthy home kits, and grocery gift cards for those in need.
“Our goal is to offer inclusive programs and events that enrich the lives of all those who participate,” she said, adding that the co-op is a not-for-profit that’s 100 per cent owned by its members and 100 per cent run by volunteers.
The Monthly Grab and Go events usually see between 80 to 130 kids collect a bag filled with themed items that are chosen to keep them busy and happy. The program is funded through grants. An outdoor ice rink has also been created and is maintained by volunteers for community use, including skating and hockey. They also have family tobogganing days, in addition to many other outdoor and indoor programming. The co-op also runs a holiday toy drive.
Hickey shared some statements from co-op volunteers and users, including the co-op’s president, Marc Mantha, who said, “When you get together with like-minded people in your community, you can come up with the inspiration and ideas to keep neighbours well.”