People, Our Work
Pastures and Pavement: Between Rural and Urban
Curated by Lauren Chang
Storyteller: John O'Connor
October 22, 2021
John O’Connor is many things - a 23 year old University of Guelph alumni, a dairy farmer, and a soon to be lawyer. But as we talk, one question arises again and again: Is John O’Connor a member of the rural or urban community?
John’s family owns a farm in the town of Ajax, which was established during the Second World War to manufacture munitions. His family settled in Ajax in 1832, an event memorialized by a plaque on a large rock at the front of their farm. When I ask John about his family, he dutifully recites his family history six generations back. He says it made his grandfather proud that he could list off the names in perfect order.
“Denis O'Connor was the first one here from County Cork Ireland in 1832. [Then it] went from Denis O'Connor to George O'Connor, Arthur O'Connor, Maurice, my grandfather, to Kelly, my dad, and his brother, Sean, who co-own the farm.”
John is spending what might be his last summer in Ajax for the foreseeable future, working on the farm before moving to Halifax to study law at Dalhousie. He tells me that he’s returned to the farm practically every summer of his life. Though farming seems to be the quintessential rural occupation, as we talk, John mentions that he is unsure if he even counts as rural. Laughing, he asks me if he’ll be kicked out of the rural archive if he was found to be too urban. When I ask him how he would define rural, he thinks for a second.
“The first thing that comes to mind when I think rural is just a place that’s a bit boring. There's not a lot of development, there's one street in town that has all the businesses, and most people are farmers or work in natural industries like mining.”
He quickly adds that he doesn’t want to invalidate people’s experiences in happy, thriving rural communities, but doesn’t know if his story quite fits in that narrative.
“[We’re part of this] older kind of industry, but you know, I could go to many different types of shops easily. I could go into the city to see plays or museums.”
John remembers being the only kid in school that grew up on a farm, from elementary starting in 2001 to high school ending in 2014. He tells me in grade 8, his teachers announced the grade’s valedictorian with a big “Mooooo,” and everyone turned to look at him. By the time he was born, the farm was already an anachronism in Ajax, and as he grew up in the early 2000’s, he watched cornfields become strip malls and most recently, Amazon warehouses. As a child, he wasn’t very outdoorsy, so he spent his free time indoors playing video games. He didn’t feel a connection to kids from rural communities that spent a lot more time playing outdoors. Seeing this slow erosion in Ajax reiterated what he had learned in school; rural was simply a stage in the process of urbanization.
“It was probably around 2005 and onward I started really noticing changes to the landscape of the town around me. I think by then the major subdivision that is across the road to the East of my house was more complete, people moved in and way more cars were driving around.”
“[The development of Canadian society is always presented as first, there was nothing like, you know Indigenous erasure...And then there's a rural society, you get stuff from the land, and that's how you're able to make stuff and stay alive, then enough people get together in a place and art starts to happen, or like other kinds of industries start to happen, but what you kind of forget is food still has to be made in places. There always has to be rural spaces to feed cities that keep growing so much that they pave everything over.”
As we talk, I start to discover cracks in John’s urban facade. John attended the University of Guelph to study philosophy, unsure if he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps at the farm. The decision to choose Guelph was partly inspired by the good memories his family members had at the Agricultural College and the desire to experience something new. At the University of Guelph, John discovered he had more in common with other farm youth than he had thought.
“I could reminisce, or I could talk with other people from farms about [how their] farm [was] set up, talk about the kind of days we farm kids would have, or the kinds of things that would happen.”
As we discussed his childhood, he told me about going to twilight meetings with his dad and participating in 4-H programming, described by him as ‘the Scouts but for farmers’. 4-H is an international organization for youth that was created to connect education with rural life through hands-on learning. He talks to me about learning to judge cows, pigs and chickens, and even winning awards for calf-showmanship.
“You'd have to train [for calf-showmanship] all summer. You train a calf to start and to walk and stop walking on your command. It was such a great time.”
He says he thinks these activities are probably developed out of boredom but notes how much he enjoyed the sense of community.
“[In rural communities], they set up a lot more communal things to do together to have a good time. But now in urban settings, you get very individualised kinds of good-time having. I grew up on video games that I would just play by myself. People watch Netflix now. When you want to decompress, you watch a movie by yourself. But [in rural communities], I remember going to events, [going to], spring fairs.”
Frustrating moments in his childhood seem different now. He compares going to fairs to the urban carnivals that will show up in parking lots.
“As a kid, I hated that my dad would stop and talk to everybody at the fair. There was always some farmer that was coming from some place, so we needed to stop and [talk about] how things are going...I realised what a young fool I was to not see this beautiful opportunity, this communal get together. I don't want to be so idealistic. [Sometimes my dad would] smile and say hey, nice to meet you, and then walk away and be like, oh my God, I had to talk to that guy. Communal doesn't mean you automatically get along with everybody. But now you don't know anybody. Now when you go to that Walmart parking lot, you only see the people you show up with.”
By the end of our discussion, I don’t know if John and I were any closer to figure out whether he was more rural or more urban. His story reminds me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, watching from her house while the world around her changes. Despite growing up on a farm, the community around him was urbanized and thus, he had access to experiences and amenities less accessible to rural communities. I felt like we had excavated this grey area, this experience of the in-between that is becoming more and more common as communities change.
“[We are] kind of like crabs skittering between the ocean and the land, like we still have so many connections to farmers in rural communities. You always think that there's an inevitability that [rural spaces] will be antiquated, but that doesn't have to be the case.”