Rural life means rural problems and COVID-19 hit Wellington County in a different way.
The county was largely spared from the worst effects of the first wave. Cases and deaths stayed relatively low and its major industries, like agriculture and manufacturing, were deemed essential.
But ripple effects were felt in the community making it clear some aspects of rural life need to change, such as modernizing broadband infrastructure and farming and encouraging local spending through tourism.
If these are addressed, local officials believe there’s an opportunity for Wellington County to be a driver in economic recovery out of COVID.
Norman Ragetlie, executive director of the Rural Ontario Institute, said the need for rural internet infrastructure was made obvious through remote working and schooling.
In his view, it also accelerated a shift for small town businesses and farms, that weren’t online before, to use the internet as a way to increase sales.
“Who knows whether the consumer pattern is permanently going to shift more online but it was already moving in that direction and probably will continue to move in that direction,” Ragetlie said. “So that might have been a silver lining in the dark cloud.”
Internet quality is a hit or miss service in the county.
Urban towns like Fergus are well serviced but more rural parts are often well below the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s basic service objective of 50/10 Mbps download/upload speed.
The government has increased funding aimed at improving rural broadband but the impact of this will be clearer down the line rather than the immediate future.
If remote working persists long-term, or permanently in some cases, Ragetlie said this could sway people to move from larger urban centres to places like Wellington County.
The County of Wellington has been projected to grow in population within the next few decades. The target population is 160,000 by 2051 up from about 90,000 in 2020.
“Those are growing communities that have been growing anyway,” Ragetlie said. “The remote working opportunity might influence stronger growth in those places.”
This won’t be obvious overnight, but Ragetlie said the Rural Ontario Institute will be looking at data closely to see if there is truly an urban-to-rural migration.
To be able to compete with urban areas, Ragetlie stressed that broadband infrastructure needs to be in place and therefore investment from the government needs to continue.
Philip Mullis, owner of Ariss-based internet service provider Wireless Farm, agreed that having access to quality internet makes moving to rural areas viable.
“A lot of people in the city, they love the idea of the country, but when they find out there’s no internet or they move here they quickly move back,” Mullis said, adding that he’s had clients who told him they were considering moving back because of low-quality internet.
This also has implications for farmers who require significant access to broadband.
“Everything from crop planting to harvesting, different industries like dairy they all rely on internet statistics and GPS. A lot of farming now is heavily automated,” Mullis explained. “Larger operations have machinery that is very dependent on network connection.”
Data from Helen Hambly Odame, rural internet expert from the University of Guelph, shows the internet speed on the average farm in Wellington County is in the low single digits Mbps.
Local farmers do have an ally in federal politics.
Senator Rob Black is from Fergus and has an extensive background in agriculture. He understands how important internet access is to farmers and rural residents.
Black said he finds it unacceptable that many don’t have access and thinks significant investment in this infrastructure should be top of mind for all levels of government.
However, Mullis said more funding isn’t necessarily the answer, rather smarter use of funding or even community-based projects where labour, money and other resources can be pooled together to build this infrastructure.
For example, he said having a farmer plough the edge of a field to lay fibre can save thousands of dollars compared to drilling.
Black explained the agriculture industry could have a huge economic impact out of COVID, especially if it can meet trade targets set in the Barton Report – which is a series of recommendations on economic growth from the federal government.
“The Barton Report done in 2018 identified agriculture as a driving force and indicated that trade exports would go from $56 billion to $75 billion,” Black said. “Shortly after that came out, some in the industry said let’s move that up to $86 billion.”
These targets are set for 2027 and Black said he hopes local farmers will be producing products for export to stimulate the economy locally and beyond.
“Obviously, the federal government has to do more and we have to continue to support our farmers, producers and processors,” Black said. “I don’t think farmers want a handout, they want a hand-up.”
Some aspects of the agriculture industry have changed as home cooking and baking drove people toward local producers for fresh ingredients.
Wayne Caldwell, a U of G professor of rural planning and development, said the tendency in previous years has been for agriculture production to go larger but he sees this as an opportunity for small producers.
“I think that speaks really nicely to things like niche farming, niche production and diversification on the farm and farmers’ markets,” Caldwell said. “If anything, COVID has made us more aware of those advantages and the opportunities that are connected to that.”
The challenge Caldwell sees for small producers is in marketing. There has been a significant shift to online formats to drive sales but this circles back to the need for better internet.
But Wellington County isn’t all dairy farms, cash crops and country living. The other side is thriving small towns and their businesses catering to stop-in guests and tourists.
Despite all odds, the village of Elora saw increased tourism this past summer as restrictions eased and people weren’t eager to travel abroad.
Maclean Hann, chair of Elora’s Business Improvement Area (BIA) and owner of the Evelyn restaurant in downtown Elora, said capitalizing on this desire could be an opportunity going forward beyond COVID.
“Typically Elora would see a lot of international tourism as well but this year without any international guests we all saw a large uptick in tourism,” Hann said.
“That’s specifically Ontario people just sticking closer to home and I think that is crucial, not just for the summers, but in general for people to start exploring their own backyard instead of just always getting on an airplane.”
On weekends this past summer and into the fall, streets in downtown Elora closed to vehicle traffic and were pedestrian-only.
Hann said this strategy was crucial as restaurants were able to expand their patios and people could social distance a bit easier.
This had direct financial impacts as expanding into the street could increase sales — particularly to restaurants offering more seating than usual — and creates a need to employ more people.
The Elora BIA is interested in expanding on this next summer and beyond as Hann said it brings a European feel and “all of the best downtowns have pedestrian-only streets.”
“It’s kind of a slower pace without the cars,” Hann said. “I think it just allows people more time to wander and browse and potentially spend.”
While the first wave went by without too many cases or deaths in Wellington County, Dr. Nicola Mercer, medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, said it’s possible residents may have eased-up on following public health guidelines because of the rural nature in the county.
“Anecdotally, I would say if you live in a rural area and you don’t see many cases, you begin to consider it as an urban disease,” Mercer said.
“I think people are a little bit lulled into a sense of security because they lived in a rural area, it wasn’t going to find them.”
But it did find them.
Cases spiked throughout Wellington County in November and for some days had a higher case count than the more densely-populated Guelph.
This was met with a response from the county government and public health which saw an increase in messaging to stop the spread and closures of Old Order Mennonite churches and schools where there were outbreaks.
Mercer commended the work Wellington County leaders and residents have done to control the spread of the virus.
“They are doing it and we can see that from the numbers in Wellington County,” Mercer said.
“If they keep up the same behaviours, it will continue to make a difference and keep them safe until we get a vaccine.”
Keegan Kozolanka, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, GuelphToday.com