TORONTO — There are places in Canada where rural communities have faltered. The neighbourhoods where Nicole Shelley and Janice Kyle reside are not among them.
Neither is the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair.
“It’s a large part of who we are. My mom and dad actually met down here and were engaged. My mom was very pregnant with me the Nov-ember before I was born. I didn’t miss the Royal that year and I haven’t missed one since,” Shelley said.
“It’s a chance for people to network. I see people here every year at the Royal that that’s the only place I see them.”
It’s a similar story for Kyle, except her family’s association with the Royal goes back further, to before the event was founded along the waterfront in downtown Toronto in 1922.
“It’s hard to say when they started going,” she said.
“It was in the 1900s, 1901, that kind of thing. It was part of the Canadian National Exhibition at the time.”
The Royal is the highlight of the year for the Shelley and Kyle families — “better than Christmas,” according to Kyle.
Shelley, although only 20, has be-come something of an institution at the annual event through her in-volvement with the sheep industry.
Along with showing sheep and gathering a wall full of ribbons along the way, she’s been the commentator for the sheep shearing demonstration since she was five.
Judy Miller-Shelley, her mother and a professional shearer for 40 years, usually removes the wool. This year, Shelley’s father, Steve, filled in.
Kyle said her husband, Peter, competed in the Queen Guineas beef competition at the Royal 35 years ago.
Today, they carry on the Royal tradition with their four children: Victoria, Maggie, Emily and Tommy. Emily competed in the TD Dairy Classic and all three daughters have served as Ontario Shorthorn Lassies, presenting awards in Scottish regalia.
The Kyles also enjoy the 4-H Go For The Gold competition, Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, the sheep competition, the livestock barns, the rabbits and the 4-H displays.
“I started 4-H before I was 12 and I helped lead before I was married. Now I’m sitting on the provincial council,” Kyle said.
Members of the Kyle family have completed more than 250 4-H club credits, while Shelley has completed 80 and has her sights set on 100.
Kyle and Shelley said the Royal remains a strong event. The livestock barns this year were once again full to capacity.
However, there have been changes.
Attendance by urban residents looking to connect with rural Ontario is up, while at the same time Ontario’s farming population has fallen.
Rural culture has managed to hold its own, at least where the Shelley and Kyle families live.
Shelley said her farming roots go back three generations on her father’s side and four on her mother’s side.
Their 140-acre in Grey County farm between Hanover and Durham is typical of the region. It’s not large by today’s standards and Shelley’s aspirations are not leading her in that direction, beyond a modest expansion to perhaps 200 acres.
“I’m big on knowing where I come from and staying with my roots,” she said.
“My dream is to stay on the farm. I want to run a flock of sheep with about 150 ewes and keep a nice herd of cattle.”
Shelley, who has a natural affinity for animals of all kinds, is already self-employed as a horse trainer.
Her mother remembers losing sight of her daughter at the Royal when she barely beyond the toddler stage. She was soon found scrubbing a Cheviot ram at the wash station to the delight of an old shepherd.
Shelley said neighbours pull together when there’s a need. It’s the same for the Kyle family, who farm near Ayr along the border between Brant and Oxford counties.
Kyle said three Kyle families and three Sayles families are among the long-standing members of her community.
“The neighbours are still definitely here. We have a community club. It used to be more often, but we still meet a couple times a year and have a Christmas celebration together,” Kyle said.
“A few years ago, my husband had an accident. We couldn’t have survived without the neighbours.”
Purebred Shorthorn cattle are the major focus at the Kyle farm, and the family began a switch to organic production in the wake of the BSE crisis.
“ It’s a lot of intensive labour, but we can make ends meet at the end of the day.”
The years have not been as kind to other parts of rural Ontario, at least from a cultural perspective. Shelley said many of the neighbours from the area her father hails from have sold to larger interests.
Others at the Royal had similar thoughts.
Kathryn Milhousen has a hobby farm near Guelph with young dairy cattle, but was she was raised on a Jersey operation in Brampton. Urban sprawl has left farming little more than a memory in that municipality, and the adjacent Halton Region is headed in the same direction.
Two 16-year-old visitors to the Royal from Connecticut are facing similar changes.
David Jellen and Ryan Biscow are pursuing studies at an agricultural trade high school but see little future for agriculture in their state, thanks to urban pressure on land prices.
Jellen and Biscow do see a possibility of farming in upstate New York.
Jellen’s dream is to work 80 acres of land, milk perhaps 20 cows and sell his production locally, possibly as raw milk.
“It’s something pretty small, but I think it’s a reasonable goal,” he said.
“People from the city don’t know how important farms like those are to the community, and they don’t understand why young people want to farm.”
Another young farmer is far more optimistic.
“I lucked into it (dairy farming),” said Prentice, who farms in Ontario.
“I went to university and decided after a year I’d rather be in the barn.”
Prentice said he and his father are buying quota every month with plans to build their herd to 70 milking cows.