By: Nicole Breedon
As a researcher at the Rural Development Institute, I have been exploring how technologies and digital data collection can be incorporated into community engagement research and development projects. Before now, I hadn’t fully conceptualized how digitization may allow for knowledge preservation that could support community development. However, the ability to amplify community voices, perspectives, cultures and values is immeasurably valuable. Agriculture is not my area of expertise by any means, but through my research on community engagement in the digital age, I noticed that it is possible to use digital data collection as a way to support agricultural communities. In terms of food production systems, digitally documenting community knowledge may offer new strategies for regionally specific farming.
The intersection of technology and agriculture
New and immerging technologies have been used to support agriculturalists for years. For example, automated milking robots have alleviated some physical demands of dairy farming, while Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have increased the accessibility to agricultural data and online resources for farmers.1 A push towards incorporating digital technologies to address variability in crop growth, alongside Farm Management Information Systems (FMIS) has resulted in the development of digital farming.1
Two principles of ICT for Agroecology, highlighted by the work of Hilbeck and colleagues (2022), stood out to me. First, there is little regard for the value of contextually relevant knowledge farmers have gained throughout their years of experience. Second, while digital tools and platforms have been helpful in sharing scientific data on crop growth and maintenance, they are only useful if they are accessible. Unfortunately, barriers in digital infrastructure create inequitable access to these increasingly valuable digital resources, placing those living and working in rural and remote agricultural areas at a disadvantage.
“In agroecology, it is argued that farming knowledge is obtained through practice and reflection, while intimate knowledge of the land comes from trial and error and a familiarity with its history. Thus, knowledge is infused with local cultural context and shared in dialogue within the community of practice.”1
What would this mean for communities?
Agriculturalists know the land they are working with better than anyone, so why has the communication between folks within a community not been prioritized as a way to share successful farming practices? If digital technologies were used to capture and share the land-based knowledge of farmers within a community, these digital inventories could support other community members as well as future agriculturalists coming into the area. For example, by documenting how farmers within a community have identified and addressed issues related to soil erosion, other farmers within the area may be able to adopt and implement these same strategies, as they are working within the same types of environmental conditions.
Re-centering agricultural recommendations on a community-by-community basis would also allow for increased inclusion, as different community members sharing their knowledge and experiences would highlight different personal perspectives and insights in a safe and non-judgmental space. As well, it could be used to foster community relations and a sense of connectedness to one another by supporting new lines of dialog related to working on the land.
The bigger, digital picture…
The problem with this proposition is that unless these digital resources were going to be stored on a computer at a location within the community, there is still the issue of the lacking digital infrastructure necessary to access these types of resources. Issues in digital infrastructure is not a new point of concern, as many rural development researchers have been acknowledging this “digital divide” for years.
Coming back to the idea that communities know what works best for them, one way to address the rural and remote digital infrastructure deficit within Canada would be to include community members in the decision-making processes related to digital infrastructure.
Informing decision makers on community-contexts would allow for policy design to be based in digital sufficiency. By letting the community convey what types of digital technologies they think would be useful and bring value to the community, resources could be designated to supporting these infrastructure changes that would best suit the explicit desires.2
Another way to address the digital divide would be to hire and support Canadian companies who are truly invested in improving connectivity across the country. One example of such companies is Broadband Communications North, an Indigenous network providing internet services to rural and remote communities in Northern Manitoba. This type of company devotion is incomparable to mass connection networks who may not fully understand the needs of non-urban areas.
This discussion above highlighted one potential example as to how digital technology could be used to increase community connectivity within agricultural communities, while supporting food production systems. Digital technologies are becoming more and more fundamental to every-day life, but stepping further into the digital world shouldn’t come at the cost of acknowledging the value of personal voices, perspectives and land-based knowledges.
1Hilbeck A, McCarrick H, Tisselli E, Pohl J, DKleine D. 2022. Aligning Digitalization with Agroecological Principles to Support a Transformation Agenda. ECDF Working Paper Series #003. Berlin. https://doi.org/10.14279/depositonce-16472
2Colaço I. 2021. Achieving Absolute Reductions: Digital Sufficiency a Principle for Energy Transition Principles. Okologisches Wirtschaften Online-Ausgabe (36): 33-35.