Small farmers are key to new rural culture and economy

It's not easy being a change agent. As renowned British journalist Walter Bagehot wrote in Physics and Politics, way back in 1873, one of the greatest pains in human nature is that of a new idea.

Some people rally around the gee-whiz factor, but overall, new ideas are disturbing. Society in general is zealous about maintaining order and normality, and new ideas buck the status quo. Bagehot said people are disposed to "ill-treat" the change agent who brings along a new idea.

Fast forward 130 years or so, and consider the plight of Chatham-area farm broadcaster Dennis Guy.

In 1993, he created the AgRadio Network to communicate what he called reliable, relevant farm industry information. That included the latest in farm markets. His show ran at noon, when farmers traditionally broke for lunch and listened to farm radio broadcasts.

Guy is no techno weenie. His background is in farming and journalism, not computers. But broadcasters have traditionally been among the most technologically advanced journalists because of the nature of their medium.

Guy is even a step ahead of most broadcasters. In fact, when he decided to start delivering radio news via satellite, he had to buy, deliver and install computers for a half-dozen or so of his partner stations, just so they could receive his service.

He's a respected, committed broadcaster, in a very specialized field. So when he called me recently to announce he's changing his entire approach to farm radio, I thought my agricultural communication students should hear where he's headed.

He visited my classroom at the University of Guelph last week, and what he had to say was classic Dennis Guy — entrepreneurial, ahead of the curve and a little "out there."

His new approach is based on two trends. First is the growing uptake and availability of Internet radio. He's convinced this technology will allow targeting like never before, giving broadcasters relatively free access to consumers of news and goods, with minimal investment and interference from government regulators — at least for now.

It's getting to the point where almost anyone can have their own little radio station right at their computer, and if they can appeal to a specific demography that certain advertisers want to reach, maybe they can make a living at it.

That's the entrepreneurial side of the matter. A technological key is that he's found a way to deliver voice to dial-up Internet users.

One of the biggest impediments to Internet use in rural areas is the agonizingly long time it takes residents there to get into the Internet and use it. But Guy says he can deliver reasonable sound quality through a technology that automatically adjusts to the user's bandwidth, rather than trying to squeeze the proverbial square peg of an audio signal through a relatively inelastic round hole. If you have a dial-up system, see if it works for you, at http://www.foodlandforum.com/index.php, and go to the website's Foodland Forum webcast area.

There are all kinds of topics being covered, such as wildlife rabies, organic food regulations and small farm diversification.

Those topics hint at Guy's new editorial direction. He's no longer trying to provide big commercial farmers with information. He believes that one way or another, they're getting all they need from other electronic sources, or from consultants and advisers. And he knows the numbers of commercial farms are shrinking.

As big farms get bigger, the overall number of commercial farms get smaller.

The flip side is that in Ontario, a whole small-farm culture has emerged.

Rather than expand and try to make a living through the economies of scale, many farmers have chosen to maintain their farms and rural lifestyle by keeping their existing land, taking an off-farm job to augment their income (most have been doing this anyway because commodity prices are so low), and produce goods that are more valuable and directly related to consumers.

This might be horticultural crops (fruit and vegetables), specialty meats and other products that capitalize on consumers' growing interest in local and regional foods. With efficient low-speed Internet access, these producers can connect to the extra-urban, urban fringe crowd, and vice versa.

That's the commercial side of Guy's new approach.

So it's not surprising to see stories about the Ontario Small Farm Producers Association on Foodland Forum. Not everyone can take a drive out to the country to have access to small farm products, but with Internet access, they can take a quick cruise to small farmers' websites or contact them.

Guy calls this broadcast approach "emphasizing the culture in agriculture."

Is Ontario ready for it? As usual, he's at the front end of the innovation curve, an active change agent in a sector that is built on tradition. That can be a tough row to hoe, but he's done it before, and by being flexible and changing with the times, he's still in business.

If the farm community thinks he's providing a service, that business will grow. There's really no need for what journalist Bagehot called ill-treatment, although federal regulators who are wringing their hands over what constitutes a radio station may feel differently.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.

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