My students are helping promote a University of Guelph-led international conference about two hours north of here this summer, on boar semen technology. It’s the first time this globally minded gathering has ever come to Canada, bringing more than 100 leading animal scientists to the area.

And what do participants want to know about in advance? Day trips to Niagara Falls? A cruise through Mennonite country? An excursion to the CN Tower?

Well, maybe. But their real desire is information about opportunities to golf.

And that’s indicative of the way things are going in some parts of rural Ontario, parts that used to be about nothing but agriculture.

It’s a trend that’s raising eyebrows within organizations who watch this kind of thing, such as Guelph’s Institute of Agri-Food Policy Innovation, a tenant in Ontario’s AgriCentre.

David Sparling, the institute’s executive director, says new thinking has emerged about how to keep rural Ontario prosperous. And ironically, it’s focused on Ontario cities.

City folks — like the scientists who’ll be arriving for the conference later this summer — are creating jobs in rural Ontario. They’re visiting attractions, going golfing or pursuing other seasonal activities (cross country skiing, for example), gambling and generally sticking around for a few days.

Agriculture is not sparking the same kind of new employment, says the institute. In a new report, “Services and Cities — Driving Change in Ontario’s Rural Business Landscape,” Sparling and co-author Delia Bucknell say the most successful rural communities will be destinations that attract urban people.

These communities won’t count primarily on agriculture to keep them going. Rather, a blend of agriculture, recreation and entertainment will be their key to prosperity, combining food production with service.

That’s not to say agriculture isn’t important. On the contrary, farm groups such as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture are quick to point out that Ontario has the largest farm sector of any province, with sales of $8.2 billion in 2005. Agriculture provides 727,000 jobs here. It’s huge.

But the job numbers are stagnant because farm numbers are shrinking — even though farms are getting bigger.

However, agriculture is indeed contributing to job growth in what’s called the buffer regions, around cities. There, rural-like services such as farmers’ markets and country depots are contributing to farm employment. The areas have significant rural populations, but are within reasonable commuting distance to cities.

Easy access to urban customers helped overall business numbers in buffer areas grow by a healthy five per cent from 2001 to 2005.

But Sparling says the real excitement is around jobs being created in the country by resorts and golf courses.

His and Bucknell’s report says golf course and country club employment jumped by 1,400 jobs in rural regions between 2001 and 2005. That underlines why it’s important for higher education institutions with an interest in agriculture, such as the University of Guelph, to offer turfgrass management and science.

Governments should continue to support rural policy and economic initiatives targeted at farmers. After all, a blanket of golf courses from Windsor to Ottawa to Sioux Lookout might be all right for duffers, but it’s bad news for our domestic food supply and biofuel production.

However, Sparling says farm groups should help their members deal with the urban visitor trend. He thinks efforts should be made to reach into the cities with polices and promotions that help pull desirable urbanites out to rural attractions and services.

That’s fascinating. Previously, all efforts were focused on trying to get value out of taking rural Ontario — via farm produce — into urban Ontario.

Now, that’s all switched around. So, farmers and farm groups have to switch their thinking, too.

Owen Roberts teaches agricultural communications at the University of Guelph.