RD Editorial April 2018

Take a deep breath

    My 13-year-old son has advised me I should not be so mean to the people who call on a daily basis claiming to be able to resolve problems with my computer. I’m taking this to heart. As self-improvement objectives go, it is both worthy and achievable. I have to keep telling myself that these people are not really scam artists; they are the sweatshop toilers of the fraud industry, likely receiving a rather small cut. Unlike the garment workers who sew our clothes in distant hot counties, they’re not even very good at what they do. 
    What the scammers have got going in their favour is the certainty that, at any given moment, a great many of their would-be victims are, indeed, experiencing computer-related angst. It works in populist politics too; if a candidate seems to have read my mind, and can tap into my feelings of frustration and alienation, I may be tempted to believe his outlandish promises of a quick fix.
    Feelings of digital disempowerment are especially common in rural areas with slow and unreliable Internet service. It’s something I didn’t even consider when we moved to this backwoods community 20 years ago. (I’m no early adopter. I am a dragged-kicking-and-screaming adopter.) But now there is no question that sketchy Internet is deterring the young and the entrepreneurial from settling in certain rural areas. This is not about access to Netflix. For many, it’s a question of being able to make a living. The social consequences of the Internet have been decidedly mixed – its promise of strengthening democracy has not exactly panned out – but one of the valid benefits is the fact that it allows some people to work from home, where reliable service is available.
    I had to exert tremendous self-control in order to be civil during a recent phone call with a distribution person from the provincial newspaper. In explaining why our paper would not be delivered anytime in the near future, the supervisor said she had driven out to look at our road, and had deemed it to be, for all practical purposes, impassible. Then she described, in some detail, the various potholes and boggy patches along the few kilometres between my house and the pavement. “It’s your choice to live out there,” she said. 
    I don’t think that line is in the customer-service handbook. I think it just slipped out, revealing a subtle attitude of contempt – a feeling that it is sheer perversity to make one’s home in such a remote place. Likely we will soon be stuck with reading the news online – when the Internet’s weak pulse will allow it – and I will have to collect birch bark to start the fire.

    It certainly seems as if Nova Scotia’s widely dispersed rural population is a thorn in the side of the provincial government. Not only do we make the delivery of health care and education more expensive, but we are also a hindrance to large-scale resource extraction. Apparently we render the province “uncompetitive” on all fronts. Sometimes it seems as if withdrawing services, or delivering them in a half-ass fashion, is part of a strategy to clear us out.
    What is the alternative to rural depopulation? Beware the easy fix. It’s not just a case of providing better infrastructure and services, and encouraging people to buy up cheap house lots all along the back roads. We need to continue the work of envisioning what a thriving small community should look like 40 years from now. That’s way beyond the timeframe of government deliverables, and way beyond bureaucratic powers of imagination – which is why civil society has a major role to play. 
    We won’t find workable models by looking to the past, but traditional sectors will still play a role. Expanded food production, for sure. Even on marginal land, we have lots of pasture that could be better utilized. And there is plenty of forest that could be better managed, with an eye to resilience and long-term productivity. 
    What else do we have going for us? We should not discount the fact that many people want to live in the hinterland simply because it is beautiful. (I wish I could say that rural living is good for our mental and physical health – but if people are living in social isolation, the opposite is true.) And because of humans’ aesthetic response to natural landscapes, many people want to visit. This is no trifling thing. In crude economic terms, we’re talking about a commodity that is becoming scarcer across the globe. People who feel an affinity for the natural world are allies, not adversaries, to rural communities. 

    In an article titled “Feeding China,” in the February issue of National Geographic, journalist Tracie McMillan describes the changing face of agriculture in the world’s most populous nation. It’s a study in contrasts. More than 90 percent of the farms are still less than 2.5 acres, powered largely by human muscle – but there are also numerous examples of the Chinese leapfrogging to factory farming, incorporating the latest robotics and computer technology. 
    There is, of course, some movement toward consolidating many of those small holdings, to achieve the “economies of scale” that are so cherished by modern agriculture. But McMillan reports that the Chinese are also recognizing that industrialized farming comes with social and ecological costs. Thus, there is a new generation of small-scale producers, some relying on direct sales through CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs or farmers’ markets, and a growing number shifting to organics. 
    There is “a phenomenon of rural-born, college-educated Chinese going back to the fields,” says McMillan. “There’s a phrase for its participants, fanxiang qingnian – young people returning to the countryside. They now have an organization dedicated to supporting their interests, Wotu Sustainable Agriculture Development Centre, and a magazine catering to them called Sustainable Farming.”
    Further, there is a recognition that scaling up, beyond a certain point, provides diminishing returns – especially when you have plenty of skilled and knowledgeable farmers who are intimately familiar with local growing conditions. “China’s staple crops of corn, rice, and wheat all yield the most food per acre at modest scales,” writes McMillan. “One study suggested the sweet spot is between five and 17 acres.”

    In some parts of North America, industrial crop farming, taken to extremes of intensity and scale, has resulted in agricultural landscapes with lower levels of biodiversity than urban landscapes. This means there is actually more nature in the city than in the countryside. No wonder urban beekeeping is a feasible and increasingly popular enterprise. 
    We should not confuse cause and effect here; if you want to help increase biodiversity, you should devote your energy not to beekeeping but to growing lots of flowering plants, so native pollinators can do their thing. But public interest in beekeeping is definitely a good thing, because it is helping to improve entomological literacy. (Also, because honey.) I learned a great deal from the excellent articles on beekeeping in this issue of Rural Delivery – by Emily Leeson, Jamie Simpson, and Zack Metcalfe. The behavior and physiology of bees, and the ecological functions of insects generally, are topics our society is just beginning to grasp. 
    Does anyone recall “Ulee’s Gold,” the movie from about 20 years ago, starring Peter Fonda – Captain America himself – as an apiarist who is dealing with family troubles? It’s a winner, largely because of its portrayal of beekeeping as a noble and complex vocation.
    By contrast, in the grey dystopia of “Blade Runner 2049” (I took the kids to see it on cheap night!), the opening sequence at a “protein farm,” where mealworms are being grown under controlled conditions, serves to place the action in an era of total ecological collapse. 
    Of course, people have been eating insects forever, and now we’re doing it in Canada, with Loblaw rolling out President’s Choice cricket powder (produced at a farm in Ontario that also grows mealworms, though those haven’t yet hit the mainstream market). Midgard Insect Farm, in Windsor, N.S., is also producing crickets, which are going for pet foot, at this point. The company’s website promotes the use of “sustainable frass” in agriculture. In addition to harvesting all the ladybugs that hatched in my house these past few weeks, I should probably be scraping the bug poop off the windows and putting this material to good use.
    Some farmers are unduly hostile toward vegetarians, and they may feel the same way about entomophagy. I think it’s okay to be agnostic on this one. If you look at stats from China, you’ll see that meat consumption is not exactly going out of style.  DL.