Doug Griffiths has spent a lot of time looking at rural communities and he’s come up with 13 things that communities do to themselves to lose business, momentum and size.
Griffiths spoke at the recent Ontario Federation of Agriculture annual meeting. His 13 points could apply to farms just about as well as rural communities.
Why it matters: Farms are almost always situated in rural communities, so it isn’t surprising that some of the challenges of those communities are also challenges to farms.
Griffiths, a one-time member of the Alberta legislative assembly, and now a rural economic development consultant, has worked across North America and wrote the book, 13 Ways to Kill Your Community.
1. Forget the water, both the quantity and quality.
Water is a basic service, expected by rural communities. Farms also need to assure their water supply, for quantity for filling sprayers and cleaning, and especially if there are livestock on the farm.
2. Don’t attract business, especially ones that will compete with yours.
Griffiths used an example of a mayor who owned a gas station in a one-station town, who kept competition out. That resulted in fewer overall businesses, with a lack of competition. Farmers too try to keep out competitors, but some of the healthiest farms are those are those close to similar farms. Ontario examples include Line 29 in Perth County and an area southeast of Teeswater in Bruce County.
3. Don’t engage youth.
This is a critical area on farms. Griffiths says that rural communities often ask why youth don’t come back to the community. Instead, he says they should be asking why they would want to come back to the community. There would often be a reason. Let them go out into the world and give them a reason to return, he says. The same could be said for farm families and farmers looking for young employees.
4. Deceive yourself.
No community is perfect, so don’t tell everyone you are. The same would be true of a farm trying to market its products. Be unique, not perfect.
5. Shop elsewhere.
Small communities have a propensity to degrade businesses that are doing well, and at times will avoid them due to pressure of coffee shop talk. Similarly, farmers need to be careful of trying to follow the dictums of coffee shop or community talk.
6. Don’t paint.
Ugly books don’t get read, says Griffiths. Similarly ugly communities that don’t show enough pride to paint areas that should be kept up tend to stagnate. Attraction to things that look nice is genetically encoded, says Griffiths. A farm hoping to attract employees or sell directly should similarly have attractiveness and upkeep as a priority.
7. Don’t co-operate.
There are times to compete and competition is what drives the economy, says Griffiths, but sometimes changing business and community models means that co-operating with those you have competed with before can have the best outcome for everyone.
8. Live in the past.
Change is going to happen, whether communities — or farms — like it or not. Pushing back against an inevitable trend will take more energy and resources than managing change. Griffiths has numerous acronyms for people he has encountered in rural communities, ranging from the well-known NIMBYs (not in my back yard) to FEARS, people who “fire up everyone against reasonable solutions.”
9. Shut out your seniors.
Communities need their seniors. Don’t lock them away or drive them away because they are at a point in their life when they are free to help and engage in ways they haven’t in other times of their lives. The same with senior farmers. They can be an important source of farm knowledge and can fulfill helpful roles in the business.
10. Reject everything new.
Griffiths told the story of a couple of young Alberta farmers who were trying to grow new crops, but who were discouraged by other local farmers. They eventually grew the new crops to significant businesses and the nay-sayers missed out.
11. Ignore outsiders.
People who did not grow up in a community are often shut out and face long integration times.
“They chose your community on purpose,” says Griffiths. “They are investing their life to make sure the community is successful.”
Similarly, farms also could have newcomers as customers, sources of labour and sources of support in their communities.
12. Take no risks.
Communities, and farms, that get ahead will at times take some risks. There will be risks that don’t turn out, but there also can be significant rewards.
13. Don’t take responsibility.
Blame is not the same as responsibility, says Griffiths. You may not be to blame, but you can take responsibility for something in your community and your farm. That means you can do something about it. You may not be to blame for the tariffs of United States President Donald Trump, which are having trickle down effects on Canadian farm goods pricing, but you can take responsibility for how it is managed on your farm.