Rural LifeRural and farm life has been very important to the development of the region. At the same time, this has given rise to popular images of homesteaders and independent farmers that fails to acknowledge the early and now overwhelming urbanization of life in the region. The greatest increase in rural residents in recent history is related to suburban-type developments being established in agricultural districts and the controversy related to intensive livestock operations (ILO) which represent a significant industrialization of agricultural activity.
Rural life in the region has been challenged in its primacy since World War II. Agriculture's share of the net value of production in Alberta had declined by the early 1970s to less than one-third of its pre WWII level. The prosperity of the post-war period is largely attributed to the industries related to the exploration, extraction and processing of petroleum.
Although this situation coincides with greater wealth and consumerism in Alberta's cities, this same period marked the beginning of an uncertain future for the rural portion of the province. The economic troubles of the 1920s and 1930s had affected and slowed the the use of farm machinery. However, with renewed affluence, a shortage of labour and a drop in the price of equipment, the use of machinery on Alberta farms increased dramatically during World War II. Less labour and larger farms were needed to make economically feasible the use of equipment such as tractors, combines and other new machinery. The development of better roads, new crop strains, fertilizers and pesticides also reduced the amount of labour required.
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As a result, the percentage of Albertans living in rural areas dropped from 67 percent in 1946 to only 31 percent by 1966. In 1921, the size of the average Alberta farm was 198 acres; by 1996 the number had risen to 608 acres, and average farm size has doubled to 1200 acres. Despite this, between 1966 and 1996, the population of rural Alberta did grow by over 20 percent. However, only 20 percent of Albertans now live rurally with less than 8 percent of the population involved in agriculture.
A number of factors have combined to prompt a decline in the population growth of rural Alberta and central Alberta has been subject to these. Some of the key and interwoven factors include: an increased reliance on farm machinery, chemical use and a move toward large scale agribusiness, where larger farms are operated by fewer people. As well, globalization and the advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which exposed Canadian farmers to the forces of the global market has created opportunities for some and restricted others.
In some districts in the region, the prospect of international companies establishing intensive operations accomodating up to 80,000 hogs has led to vigorous debate and community organization in district's such as Bell's Hill and near Clive, east of Lacombe. The possibility of employment, even with modest wages, is attractive to struggling rural municipalities attempting to reshape their economies and tax base. These developments reflect a harsh reality of rural life, quite different from a pastoral ideal. As Roger Epp notes in his introduction to 'Writing Off the Rural West: Globalization, Governments and the Transformation of Rural Communities' the decline of the traditional rural economy is leading to a countryside that is either "playground or dumping ground." Those with recreation opportunities and proximity to cities have attempted to develop a tourism or retiree element in the local economy, complete with golf courses. Others have had to consider less desirable and environmentally suspect ventures such as the aforementioned livestock operations or landfill, manufacturing and incineration plants. Epp sees this dilemma as connected to a reduced willingness on the part of provincial and federal governments to see rural communities as valuable beyond immediately economic criteria.