Learning about Rural Sociology in Taiwan

Professor Mark Shucksmith, Director of Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Renewal, discusses his recent visit to Taiwan, where he was a guest of the Taiwan Rural Sociology Society.

Last month I visited Taiwan, as a guest of the Taiwan Rural Sociological Society, to speak at an international conference in Taipei, to lecture at the National Taiwan University, and to visit rural communities and hear what they were doing. I also met the Minister of Agriculture, Mr Lin Tsung-hsien, and rural champion, Dr Frida Tsai MP. Before my visit I read that the people of Taiwan are renowned for their kindness, and I can confirm this: everyone I met was extraordinarily kind and thoughtful. But I also learned from my visit, I hope, so here are a few reflections.

The concept of networked rural development is well known in Europe (now repackaged as Smart Villages). Taiwan, I learned, has also started to pursue this approach, with government support since 2010. A rural regeneration programme offered funding to villages and community development workers, usually under the name of community development associations, at least in its first phase. A second phase from 2017 has provoked some controversy by restricting payment for people’s time and requiring voluntary effort instead. The government recently announced a major research programme, Social and Cultural Survey of Rural Taiwan, to further inform its enabling state role. At community level I saw examples of asset-based community development and social innovation (an eco-village, a ‘paper dome’ wedding/tourism venue, authentic Haka cuisine), institutional capacity (a network of agricultural marketing, training and financial services organisations) and learning through networks. It was especially interesting to observe how the networked rural development approach might operate in the context of a weak civil society, hampered by patriarchy and clientelism, and where mistrust exists between villages and government to the extent that rural activists formed a Taiwan Rural Front. Often crisis was the catalyst for rural regeneration efforts, whether earthquake destruction or the impact on farmers of joining the WTO.

I was interested too to discover that attracting and supporting young people to move to villages, often to engage in farming, is a major interest not only in Taiwan but also in Korea and Japan. Indeed the theme of the international conference was ‘new rural returnees’. We heard from numerous young people, not just dissatisfied with urban life but looking for alternatives to neoliberalism incorporating more utopian values and a better work-life balance which left time for family and relationships. Governments sought ways to support these young people to move and pursue their dreams, seeing them as vital to the social sustainability of ageing villages. In one example, a group of young people had formed a cooperative social enterprise to farm with ageing farmers who find it increasingly hard to work their land but could not give up their holdings. Some of these experiences and ideas might resonate also in Britain.

There is indeed an appetite from my hosts and others in Taiwan to compare their experiences with ours in Europe and for us to learn from one another. In a short visit I was only able to gain a very superficial insight into Taiwan’s approach to rural policies and regeneration activities, and there is much more to learn. I encourage colleagues to continue this process of knowledge exchange and dialogue: apart from mutual learning, you will be greeted with great kindness.

The potential of rural economies

Credit: North Pennines AONB

Frances Rowe discusses the potential of rural economies, in the context of the ongoing House of Lords enquiry into rural economies.

I have often observed how policy for rural economies seems to be caught between agricultural support on the one hand, and measures to encourage urban growth on the other.   Yet as the House of Lords enquiry into rural economies has been finding out, neither perspective is sufficient to unlock the potential of rural economies.    As Professor Jeremy Phillipson reminded the committee in his oral evidence that rural businesses are worth an estimated £250 billion per annum to the national economy in GVA terms, the equivalent of the 10 largest cities outside London. The problem with policy is that it regards rural economies as an offshoot of primary production to be catered for by farm support, while urban growth policies fail to take account of the distinctive needs of rural economies that are dominated by small businesses, and where growth and employment may be steadier.  Yet as research by Newcastle University’s Rural Enterprise UK has shown, rural businesses are frequently innovative and have the potential to grow – for example, through exports – while making a valuable contribution to the resilience of rural places and communities.  With many policies in a Brexit-induced state of flux, including domestic policy for industrial and clean growth strategies, there is the opportunity for rural economies to ‘come in from the cold’ and for their distinctive needs to be recognised. For this to happen several commitments need to be in place. These were spelled out by Professor Phillipson in his evidence to the committee, and in written evidence submitted by the Centre for Rural Economy.

Credit: Frances Rowe

The first is for policy support for rural economies to be decoupled from agriculture, as the OECD was advocating more than 10 years ago.  I do not see this as denying the value of agriculture to  rural economies, for example as an input into downstream activities such as food processing, the indirect value of farming to tourism, or the innovative potential of farmers to tackle the challenges of a changing climate. Rather, a sectoral focus on primary production in policy terms fails to capture the diversity and potential of the wider rural economy and the needs of non-farming businesses. Second, we need a universal commitment to high speed broadband and mobile infrastructure as an essential underpinning to rural business growth and future rural service provision. It is said we are entering a ‘fourth industrial revolution’.  This is an umbrella term for a range of new technologies that are revolutionising the ways in which we live and work, and as a recent workshop as part of the Northern Powerhouse business summit highlighted, it is vital that rural businesses and communities do not miss out.  Third is a drive to more effective rural proofing, not only of national government policy, but critically, sub-national policies and programmes, such as the local industrial strategies being developed in England. Not only must policy contain the right words, it must also be designed for rural as well as urban businesses, and evaluated for its rural impacts. Research by Rural Enterprise UK has found that there are distinctive barriers faced by rural businesses in accessing skilled labour and developing the training needed to create high quality jobs and growth. However, with inventive and flexible policies these barriers can be overcome. Finally, policy must be joined up across national and local government so that longstanding structural barriers to rural growth can be tackled, such as the lack of affordable housing and transport. These barriers are not new, but they remain inhibitors of rural business growth.  Policy that is calibrated to local needs and opportunities, within an overarching national framework that calls delivery bodies to account, may be the most effective approach all round.  I await the Committee’s recommendations with interest, and the government’s response.

Visiting researcher Philip Roberts reflects on his time in CRE

For someone who has been mainly a tea drinker I leave CRE with a well-developed coffee habit, but that’s a small price to pay.
I’ve come to CRE from the University of Canberra, Australia (but I like to point out I live in a small town halfway between Sydney & Canberra).  For the past ten years I’ve been working in what we call ‘rural education’ in Australia and an area referred to as Curriculum Inquiry – the study of knowledge in the curriculum and its role in promoting & limiting equity. I mainly teach the sociology of education and curriculum theory in our undergraduate and graduate programs.
We have recently developed the Rural Education and Communities research group, situated within the Faculty of Education. This program of research, and the way the research is framed, is unique in Australia.  Parts of my travels are geared towards thinking through the directions this research group will take, and hopefully building some connections to collaborate with in this work. The group is deliberately named as per the group at Penn State, with their agreement, as we have strong relationships with them.
I’d stress that the conception of education I’m using here is a broadly defined one and not delimited by appending ‘school’. Indeed I sit with the Australian Institute for Sustainable Communities (AISC), and much of my work has been the role of education in communities and how rurality is engaged with in education.   AISC is essentially the remnants of the former ‘community studies’ part of the faculty, and much AISC work is related to development, and located in ‘developing’ contexts.
Rural Education
It’s a space that has a similar community in North America and a growing community in Europe.   There are two journals in this community, the ‘Australian and International Journal of Rural Education’ (I was Chief Editor for the last 3 years) and the ‘Journal of Research in Rural Education’based at Penn State.
I’ve been reflecting upon the nature of the field for a while, as I’ve been feeling that it is increasingly narrowing itself, becoming self-referential and overly focussed on preparing teachers for rural areas.  My initial analysis of the international field reveals a persistent focus upon the different educational outcomes and achievement levels of rural, regional and remote students.  Typically this revolves around issues of access to a full curriculum, access to further education and training, the attraction and retention of staff and the socio-economic composition of rural populations and regions.
Arguments in these areas are usually predicated upon notions of equity for rural regions, economic development of regions, and the human capital development of rural populations. Problematically, these positions have tended to emanate from within education studies and often only draw on the broader fields of the humanities and the social sciences in a limited sense.
Notably, arguments about the levels of rural achievement and development are usually framed in comparison to a metro-centric norm.  As such the ‘rural’ has been defined by major centres of power in this research and not in its own terms.  Rural education research has begun to problematize this construction.  However, these arguments are often couched in romantic or nostalgic notions of the rural and the nation’s past.
Interestingly (well I think so), there are a group of scholars who call themselves rural educators who come from ‘Comparative and International Education’. These scholars appear to draw from sociology and are equally as likely to be located in humanities and/or social science faculties as education faculties. They tend to study education in countries other than their own and no, they don’t know anything about the other rural education folk (or visa versa) or draw on rural studies. However, they have a number of high ranked journals, much higher ranked than the two ‘rural education’ ones.
Recently, a couple of us have been arguing for a greater engagement with the parent disciplines and related rural fields.  Gaining a better understanding of these disciplines and fields is what brought me here to CRE and Newcastle University.
It seems that while rural education is somewhat ambiguously placed it theoretically draws primarily from the traditions of sociology and geography, with broader engagements with the non-education fields of rural sociology and rural geography (Roberts & Cuervo, 2015).  It seems to me that sociology, and the sociology of education, does not engage significantly with the rural – hence the development of sub-fields of rural education and rural sociology.
Consequently, scholarship is necessary in order to bridge these divides and enhance the quality, and breadth, of scholarship in all related fields. Currently, there are a number of moves to strengthen these connections, for instance the emergence of the area of study of ‘rural literacies’ (Donehower, Hogg & Schell, 2007; Green & Corbett, 2013) and ‘rural social space’ (Reid et al, 2010).
I came to CRE then with the broad intent to explore these relationships further.  At this moment in time it seems that the key issues are the different philosophies/theories/methodologies, the UK/Europe/USA differences in rural studies, as well as coming to recognise the recent developments in the fields – so as to start linking with education (broadly defined).
One outcome of my visit has been the positive response to my, perhaps outsider, analysis of the fields.  This has encouraged me to frame a project on ‘mapping the rural fields’. It seems there is a potentially useful project here in mapping the various rural sub fields.
A first project
This is a more formal approach to the broad plan of my study leave, and I’ve kicked off an ethics application. The broad plan is to survey/interview leading scholars in the various rural sub fields about theory, methodology, key works etc. and map the relationships. It would also involve examining the reference and citation links of the key works and theories they cite.  The aim would be to present this at the world congress in 2020 in Cairns, Australia. I’d be more than happy to involve a CRE collaborator…
An even more exciting development (for me at least)
While I’ve been based here at CRE and met with colleagues here, I’ve also met with others at Newcastle University, and Durham.  Through these conversations I have been exposed to a much more exciting development.
(and here I digress for a moment) I’ve just started working on the initial draft of a major research grant application for back home – a 3 year project.  In that project I wanted to look at rural knowledges in education and how they are, and are not, engaged with and how this relates to issues of equity and social justice.  This would involve working with communities and schools, and seeing how teachers can bring in other knowledges in a standardised curriculum framework. In my draft notes I had this term ‘local knowledge’ and in the past have referred to ‘rural knowledges’ – something I’d argued pertained to knowledges emanating from a rural standpoint as distinct from the metro-normative knowledges of the global metropole. Hence the need to understand rural studies better as the possible site of the theory I’ve been looking for. Until now I could only gesture theoretically that there were ‘rural knowledges’ and make analogies to knowledge ala class, gender and so forth.
Until now I say because I discover that CRE and the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CFLAT) have established research programs that together bring the two pieces of the puzzle together in a concrete fashion – around my issue of engaging rural knowledges in education.  The work of the CFLAT, especially that related to community curriculum development, articulates well into the local knowledge, stakeholder engagement and knowledge transfer work of many CRE researchers and projects (esp. the Rural Economy and Land Use program (RELU)).
Consequently, I’m very keen to continue to develop possible collaborations into the grant I am developing and further related research.
Learning about interdisciplinary and knowledge exchange
The rich interdisciplinary traditions here at CRE, and the work on interdisciplinary research, stakeholder engagement and knowledge transfer, are certainly areas the institute I sit with (AISC) can learn a lot from.  We’ve had some experience in a related space, but after discussing the work of CRE and the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) I’ve come to gain further insight into how we can progress in this area.
One of our projects ‘Towards Place-Based Education in the Murray-Darling Basin’ was part of the Murray-Darling Basin Futures Collaborative Research Network (MDBfutures). This network was funded by the Australia Research Council.  There were minor similarities here to the Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) in the idea of an interdisciplinary design and its rural focus. However, it lacked key elements and was nowhere near as influential as RELU.  The power of leadership, interpersonal skills, and the interdisciplinary framing of projects seem critical – whereas ours was discreet projects around interdisciplinary themes.
Our project explored the ways in which sustainability is understood in Murray-Darling Basin (MDB) communities (including Indigenous, rural, small towns, regional centres, local industries, co-ops and so forth).  The project then examined how local understandings are, and can be, engaged within education to achieve more collaborative outcomes. To achieve these collaborative understandings the project explored approaches to place-conscious education as a vehicle for social inclusion and community representation. By surfacing various understandings of sustainability, the project aimed to help educators, in both the school and community sector, engage more effectively with ideas around sustainability in their work.
Following this project, we were funded to look at the aspirations of rural students for agriculture sector careers. The project identified a lack of understanding of the nature of modern rural industries by many students and teachers in rural schools. Many students, and teachers, did not understand the relationship between school subjects and careers in modern rural industries.  This then discourage students seeking places in university. Similarly rural industry leaders did not understand the language of school subjects, and consequently were not able to link their industry needs and the subjects students study at school. Bringing this together the projected illustrated a significant language gap between students wanting to pursue rural careers, teachers and rural industries – now we need to bridge that gap!
It seems a lot of what we have been doing is inherently interdisciplinary and linked somewhat to issues of knowledge exchange and stakeholder engagement. My time at CRE has helped me understand how we can better position these in the wider fields of rural studies – not a bad outcome considering it wasn’t part of the initial plan.
What next?
From here I head to Aberystwyth and then spend a month in Tromso, Norway with the Space, Time and Education research groupin Tromso, Norway, and specifically the RUR-ED program on spatial inequity and spatial justice. This group are doing some innovative statistical and ethnographic research into spatial, mainly rural, inequities. Oh, and there is a bit of a holiday in between these stops.
Is this goodbye?

By no means, and maybe next time I’ll come when it’s not holidays and subject you all to a seminar…  In the meantime, I’m very keen to develop collaborative research, generally, and specifically for the two projects noted above.

Looking after farmers as well as the land: research with farmers in North Yorkshire's Cornfield Flowers Project

Examining flowers in North Yorkshire Cornfield Flowers Project (CFP) margin. Image courtesy of CFP 

Do farmers derive any personal benefit and well-being from their Agricultural Environmental Schemes (AES) work?

Being a volunteer grower and seed guardian for North Yorkshire’s Cornfield Flowers Project (CFP) made me aware of how this project functioned differently from other, mainstream AES. The CFP capitalises upon farmers’ personal interest in arable flowers [1] Participating farmers are not paid for the work, do not sign contracts, and are not obliged to adhere to prescriptive cultivations methods imposed by an external agency. Unlike most AES, the project is also restricted to a relatively small geographical area of North East England.

Research shows that most AES are considered by farmers to be bureaucratic, time consuming and onerous. They are organised so that they can be applied generically across the whole country and prioritise process over outcome. Central administration is easier, but farmers cannot easily modify the schemes to local conditions such as land type and weather patterns. Farmers’ own skills, motivations and interests are not optimised, and AES work can become a chore rather than a satisfaction.

For my dissertation for a Food and Rural Development Research MSc in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy, CFP became my case study. I found that this drew my attention to social processes within the project which I had largely overlooked within my role as a volunteer. These included the ways that alliances were formed amongst farmers because of their interest and expertise in arable flowers, differentiating them from other, local arable farmers with no interest in or even a disdain for what they saw as weeds. CFP farmers’ social networks provide opportunities to consult, advise and receive advice about cultivating arable flowers, share seed and plant material otherwise difficult to obtain, and indulge in competitive banter about growing the most extensive range of, or the best examples of flowers. On a local and individual level this appears to contribute to their sense of belonging and identity, but it also performs a practical function in that the farmers have become a unique community of expertise now sought out by agricultural and environmental professionals wanting to know how to manage arable land for biodiversity. The farmers relish this role reversal; outsider experts seek their advice instead of telling them how to manage an AES.

Garden growing CFP plants for seed production and saving. Photo by Heidi Saxby. 

My own volunteer status and capital within the project benefited me whilst I was planning and doing my research fieldwork. Being a seed guardian may have reassured farmers of my genuine interest in the project and their work, so that they were sanguine about the time my visits took up and receptive to my endless questions. And perhaps my (limited) knowledge of arable flowers gave me a head start when discussing propagation methods. The farmers took great pride in showing me around their farms, carefully diarising my visit according to the forecasted weather and crop maturity, in order that I would enjoy a ‘good show’ of flowers.

When visiting their flowering field margins I was especially struck by farmers’ pride in ‘their’ flowers, and the meanings they attributed to them. One farmer speculated about his grandfather seeing these beautiful weeds when ploughing with horses; slow work giving farmers closer proximity to arable flowers than is afforded by modern farming methods and mused about his current conservation efforts enhancing the chances of his grandson and potential great grandchildren seeing them on the same land in the future. For this farmer, as for others, the arable flowers represented permeance, place attachment and his family’s history on that land, with the flowers elevated to a status more complex and personal than that of being ‘just’ a pretty weed.

Each flower had a story associating it with its particular farm or farmer’s family. Abundant Cornflowers create a blue haze on the headlands of one farm, yet refuse to grow on another nearby CFP farm. Gowland Lane, near to a different CFP farm bears the local name for Corn Marigold, indicating it once grew profusely there. Venus’s-Looking Glass thrives on yet another farm at the extreme north of its geographical range. All the Corn Buttercups now flourishing on CFP farms were originally propagated from the tattered, post-harvest remains of one solitary plant located by chance. Such stories and the manner of their telling suggest that the farmers become emotionally invested in the flowers and the process of caring for them, and demonstrate the flowers’ symbolic and well as their material value. Farmers spent considerable time hunting for, ‘good examples’ of elusive, especially rare or beautiful flowers to show to me, with some visiting their flowering margins shortly before my planned visit to stake out particular plants for my appraisal. I spent hours walking around field margins where farmers grow their flowers, listening to their gleeful stories about other CFP farmers and photographed the flowers that they carefully displayed. I was shown to places regarded with especial affection because of their flora, fauna and tranquillity, and heard explanations about the meanings these things had for them. It would be intrusive to relate those here, but they illustrate how farmers’ efforts to look after the natural environment brought satisfaction, and motivated ongoing CFP (and AES more generally) work.

Blue-flowered form of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Photo by Heidi Saxby. 

My research contact with CFP farmers has ended, but my ongoing seed guardian role gives a legitimate reason to revisit them. These visits are opportunities to share stories, seeds and updates about developments in both the CFP and in research outcomes. On one visit I informed them about recent publication of our co-authored academic paper [2] from the research. They were interested to hear how their conservation efforts are perceived by outsiders and proud that the research was being positively received. This led me to recall our fieldwork conversations, and the remark of one farmer, who said: ‘well, as I say people like yourself who come; it pleases them that there’s something, something special to them so, you get a satisfaction out of knowing that you’ve helped’


[1] ‘Arable plants are the most critically threatened group of wild plants in the UK. Identifying sites where these rare species remain is essential to ensuring their conservation through sustainable management’ (Plantlife. Threatened arable plants. Identification guide. Sailsbury, Wiltshire.)

[2] Saxby, H., Gkartzios, M. and Scott, K. (2017) ‘‘Farming on the edge’: Wellbeing and participation in agri-environmental schemes’, Sociologia Ruralis.

Can rural businesses keep up with current developments….or even take over?

CRE Research Fellow Paul Cowie reflects on a Northern Powerhouse Business Summit hosted by CRE.



We have all seen huge changes in the world during our lifetimes – many beneficial but some alarming – and now the 4th Industrial Revolution is gathering pace and set to alter many more aspects of the way we live and work.  So it seemed appropriate that a workshop CRE hosted as part of the Northern Powerhouse Business Summit kicked off with delegates being asked to highlight their hopes and fears.

Because we were a group with a particular interest in the rural, it’s not surprising that a hope expressed by many participants was that rural would be treated as an equal partner in debates about the future, that rural areas would be seen as places for innovation and enterprise in the same way as cities. As is so often the case, connectivity – both physical and technological was a source of frustration and contributors expressed the feeling that retaining a skilled and young workforce was key to a successful future for the countryside.  Could devolution also present opportunities?  As it starts to take shape in our region rural communities would certainly be well advised to position themselves to take advantage of it.  New technologies, designed in partnership with those communities themselves, could prove to be a powerful tool for rural development.  Alternatively, there is still the possibility that rural areas are seen as backward and areas of tradition so do not need the same levels of connectivity and technology as urban areas.  This then reinforces the framing of rural as non-technological creating a self-fuelling feedback loop.

I had a sense of real fear that the rural could be neglected again in policy terms, and that it is fated always to be defined against urban.  Can we keep that young workforce if they are being forced out of home ownership by holiday homes and commuters?  Must the countryside become a dormitory for the town or a theme park for tourists? Is the debate about rural connectivity destined to start and finish with the issue of broadband?

But could the future look really quite different, in ways that would have seemed impossible just ten, even five years ago? We heard four provocations which highlighted different developing technologies: a trial of autonomous vehicles by the Lake District National Park and the future of mobility as a service in rural areas; augmented and virtual reality that Northumberland National Park is employing to enrich the visitor experience and reach a new audience; work on the future of food production by the Government Office for Science; a presentation from CRE on the opportunity for distributed power stations using rural community buildings. 

This helped to unleash some creativity in us all. Three ideas were based around the idea of a rural internet of things (IoT). It was acknowledged that to take advantage of next generation technologies, rural areas need to infrastructure to support them.  A rural IoT platform which encompassed a broad spectrum of systems (5G, LoRaWAN and Wi-Fi) which are open to anyone to deploy new technology in rural areas. The ideas ranged from supporting new businesses through the IoT to smarter delivery of public services in rural areas.  Another idea built on the distributed power station provocation. Community owned renewable energy installations would be combined with battery storage and grid connectivity to generate a revenue for rural communities. The last idea built on two of the provocations. In this case the autonomous vehicle would be a mobile entertainment venue with AR/VR built in to give rural audiences a range of entertainment experiences in their own community.

But even these ideas may be too conventional.  Perhaps the future could look more different than we can imagine. 

The Future of Farm Payments – Subsidy or Reward?

CRE Director Guy Garrod and colleagues were invited to an event with local MP Guy Opperman and Defra Minister George Eustice.  In our blog he shares some impressions of the discussion.
We were fortunate not to have been at Ogle Hall Head Farm near Belsay on Thursday, when Storm Hector did its best to blow our event venue up to the Scottish borders and was only prevented from doing so by the judicious placement of concrete blocks, the arm of a large digger and an enviable selection of potted geraniums.  Things had quietened down a bit on Friday when Newcastle University staff and students were among those who attended a Farming Round Table organised by local MP Guy Opperman.  He had chosen a suitably agricultural venue, in the heart of rural Northumberland, in a marquee that the canny farmer bought for £450 a few years ago and is now a useful asset in his diversified business. 
Airport regulations, rather than the weather, conspired to cause the late arrival of the main speaker, long-serving Defra Minister George Eustice MP, who was due to speak about the future of food and farming after Brexit.  But he did make an appearance eventually and deftly fielded a range of questions around trade tariffs, farm tenancies, the proliferation of paperwork and other concerns, presenting a comforting vision of a future where farmers and local advisors would sit around the kitchen table reviewing the environmental performance of the farm, before filling in an application for the next round of funding.
Sue Bradley, who notices this sort of thing, highlighted the number of times the Minister used the word ‘reward’ and it was clear from his answers that he was firmly behind Defra’s vision of payments to farmers for supplying public goods.  Which public goods this included, how they should be provided, or how much they were worth, was less clear.  What was clear is that rather than the traditional approach of farmers receiving payments for income forgone – that is compensating them on the basis of the cost of supplying a public good, like improved biodiversity or public access – the Minister preferred an option where farmers were incentivised or ‘rewarded’ for their ability to deliver improvements to natural capital or ecosystem services. Such ‘rewards’ may well be judged to fall outside of the World Trade Organisations ‘Green Box’ of subsidies that do not distort trade or production and within the more distorting ‘Amber Box’. Even if the UK cannot persuade the WTO that payments to farmers for producing public goods are not trade-distorting, it is still likely that it will be able to take advantage of WTO limits around non-exempt support, which for the EU are still well in excess of its annual Amber Box declarations.
There remain questions around how these ‘rewards’ are to be earned and on their governance. Previous research involving CRE has revealed a preference among stakeholders for a more bottom-up approach to the design of agri-environment schemes and demonstrated the advantages of approaches that are based around landscapes, involving whole farms and farmers who work in partnership with NGOs and relevant public bodies, such as Natural England.  Perhaps this is the way forward for farm support in the UK, as we develop a culture of rewarding farmers for working together to deliver non-market goods and services appropriate to the landscapes within which they work?  This work would require local knowledge and expertise and should be funded in a way that recognises the societal benefits that land managers generate by reflecting both the costs incurred and a fair level of incentive.

Reflections on the OECD 2018

This year’s OECD Rural Development Conference took the uplifting theme of “enhancing innovation”, a key to ensuring rural areas can thrive, and a topic that aligns with much of the work CRE colleagues are doing at Newcastle.  Ian Merrell, Carmen Hubbard, Sally Shortall and Paul Cowie were at the conference and returned with some reflections on the experience.

Ian said: “I opted for workshops on the theme ‘skills and training in a rural context’ and there were some interesting discussions between industry and academia.  People made the point that we should be distinguishing between the kind of life long training you might undertake at the beginning of your career and the reskilling or upskilling during that career, via short term courses.   Some sectors are experiencing rapid changes and policies don’t currently account for this.” 

Paul was involved in discussions about the need for creativity to spark the innovation that will create more rural jobs and how we can encourage this is in young people.  “Innovative ideas are often those that run counter to the prevailing orthodoxy, which raises questions about innovation and how rural education can foster that.  How can we give rural children the skills that will enable them to participate fully in the future rural economy however that changes?” he said. 

Education also got a mention in the Rural Services Session, in the context of how rural communities can be enabled to access the best services.  That may not be within their own communities, unpopular as that message might be.  Sally explained: “One example given in the session where I was presenting was access to services in Northern Ireland. Despite being a very small region, with 93% of the population being 30 minutes or less from a settlement of 10,000 – the proxy for full services – the region has still introduced a Rural Needs Act. This was enacted last year and in effect legislates for rural proofing, now called rural needs assessment. This raised questions about the complexity of distinguishing between what is desirable and what is essential; it might be desirable to have a local school in every community, but it is essential that rural children receive the best possible education. We talked about how emotive any erosion of services becomes.  It seems as though people fear that losing services represents the erosion of community.”


Neo endogenous development models and the work of CRE were referenced in the discussions about rural development and delegates broadly agreed that both resources and knowledge from outside need to be combined with local know how. 

“There were some impressive examples of neo endogenous development from Eigg in the Inner Hebrides to the Arctic Smartness programme in Northern Finland,” said Paul.  “They demonstrated how communities were able to build institutional capacity by working with multiple levels of government to develop development strategies which worked with the natural, cultural and human capital within their community.” 

Connectivity is important for innovation but do developments always have to be high tech?  Carmen was anxious to emphasise the importance of people in entrepreneurship when she spoke about “green jobs”.


The conference was an excellent opportunity to be involved in the discussions. However, considerable emphasis was placed on technology, smart practices, precision agriculture and the digital economy. We can’t dispute their significance for rural areas, but a more holistic and integrated approach for rural development would be preferable. Technology is not the supreme driving force for economic development and it cannot be applied in isolation. As one of the participants put it ‘You do not need to be smart to be innovative. Innovation means finding solutions to problems’. We need to carefully consider which technologies are required: Innovative technology requires highly skilled operators and less input of labour per unit of output. Highly innovative businesses can grow and create new jobs, but these technologies may destroy jobs in the agricultural sector.” 

Going to TARRN

Adrienne Attorp blogs about her first academic conference, following a windswept journey to Cornell.

As a first-year PhD student I was not sure what to expect from my first academic conference. The Trans-Atlantic Rural Research Network (TARRN) is “a collaborative network of social scientists in North America and Europe conducting original research on rural transformation and rural policies”. The main aim of the network is to undertake comparative research on rural transformations in the US and UK.  Each year the group meets to discuss new and ongoing research being conducting by network members, and to act as a “springboard” for new research that is in line with the network’s aims.  I’m told it’s not a “typical” academic conference but it was a great introduction for me, particularly as I was able to give a paper myself.  This year the network meeting was hosted by Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and I attended along with four academics from Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy.  Nothing at all against Aberystwyth (last year’s hosts) or Aberdeen (next year’s hosts), but there is something rather exciting about taking a trans-Atlantic flight in order to get to a conference, and I for one was delighted that it was Cornell’s turn.  Never mind that a fierce nor’easter shut down the entire eastern seaboard the day most of us travelled over, meaning that more than one of us had to go on a magical mystery tour of European and American airports before finally arriving in Ithaca (I highly recommend Detroit’s airport).  We did all get there in the end! 

I spent the days leading up to the event preparing to have my underdeveloped ideas torn to shreds by the seasoned academics in attendance, most of whom are leaders in the field of rural sociology.  Thankfully, I was spared humiliation; it turns out that TARRN works to actively support new and experienced academics alike, and this meeting was no exception.  I am pleased to report I didn’t have any rotten tomatoes thrown at me, nor did anyone tell me I am stupid (I cannot confirm no one thought this, but I choose to remain comfortable in my ignorance).  Instead, I received a great deal of thoughtful, constructive feedback, which left me feeling motivated and inspired.   

TARRN meetings aim to maximise idea sharing.   Participants present ‘think pieces’, each written with a view to stimulating debate and sparking future research.   This is followed by round table discussion on the topic – an opportunity for people to ask questions, provide feedback, and suggest ideas for future research and collaboration.  There are also short presentations about attendees’ current research again followed by round table discussion.  This offered those who wished it an opportunity to receive valuable feedback about their research from their fellow academics.  The conference room was abuzz with exciting ideas, and everyone seemed energised. 
To me, the TARRN meeting felt like what academia should be about: idea sharing and collaboration, for the benefit of all. For why do we research if not to learn about the world and how it works, in order to help make it a better place?  And therefore, if our research is indeed for “the greater good”, should we not, as academics, be helping further each other’s work as much as we can?  Perhaps it is naïve of me to believe this. I am aware of academia’s competitive, cut-throat reputation, and maybe after another three years of PhD study I will become jaded.  However, I hold out hope, because the TARRN meeting demonstrated to me that academia can be positive, supportive, and collaborative. I am already looking forward to next year’s meeting in Aberdeen, which, although not as exotic as New York, will at least not take two days to travel to. 


Brexit – opportunities and unanswered questions from the Defra/AES one day conference

Andrew Moxey, who is working with CRE and research partners on the ESRC funded project Brexit: How might UK agriculture survive or thrive?reflects on the recent Defra/AES One-Day Conference “Agricultural Trade & Brexit.

As with last year’s one-day conference, Defra’s Minister for Agriculture George Eustice made an appearance.  And, as with last year, he championed the opportunities offered by Brexit and expressed confidence in the future international competitiveness of UK agriculture.  In particular, he was positive that UK sheep producers could compete with those of New Zealand.  Given the UK government’s apparent reluctance to issue analysis of economic impacts, and indeed to dismiss any that does appear, I am curious as to the basis for his confidence.  I for one do not share it.   Moreover, talking to other delegates over lunch, it is apparent that neither do many of the other agricultural economists who were present – whether they be academics, civil servants (hush!) or industry members.  Yes, some form of agriculture may survive, but the pressures for rapid structural change will be immense and it is not clear that the consequences have been thought-through.

For example, the environment did not feature in any of the day’s presentations.  Given the emphasis on ecosystem services in Defra’s own current consultation on future policy, this seems something of an omission.  What are the implications of Brexit and different domestic support arrangements for agricultural land abandonment, chemical usage and carbon emissions?  How might they vary geographically?  Equally, what are the implications for social cohesion and community viability in remoter rural areas where agriculture is relatively more important economically?  What support measures might be needed to help structural adjustment processes?  As one speaker noted in passing “one person’s efficiency is another man’s redundancy” (I’m reminded of a Mitchell & Webb comedy sketch about flint knappers meeting makers of bronze arrow-heads).

The modelling work presented (including two speakers from our own ESRC project) in the morning was well-received, but even in terms of farm income and production levels it has yet to get to the nub of likely structural adjustments.  Models at the economy and sector-levels may have implicit or explicit elasticities describing supply-responses, including how factor markets will adjust, but it is not clear how well these describe actual relationships on the ground.  For example, will land rental values fall to lower costs and encourage farm amalgamations?  How might tenancy arrangements and the tax treatment of land affect such processes?  Equally, how well do average coefficients represent responsiveness of highly heterogenous farms?   Despite considerable effort being expended on collecting farm data, I find myself reflecting on how little we seem to know.  Goodness knows how analysts working in other sectors are faring.

The afternoon presentations and plenary session sessions spanned a wider range of topics, and I gained some useful insights.  For example, the implications of Brexit for cross-border trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but also Great Britain, could be significant for all parties due to the sheer volume and complexity of trade flows.  Moreover, reductions in access to the UK market could affect the EU27 market as Irish producers seek alternative outlets.  Similarly, some developing countries are exposed to potential trade disruption if current preferential arrangements are eroded.  It is clear that the sheer number and variety of existing arrangements could pose a sequencing problem for bilateral renegotiations, and that potentially this could stimulate a revisiting of multilateral talks to revise the Agreement on Agriculture (although I won’t hold my breath).

Non-tariff measures (NTMs, previously NTBs!) are common in agricultural trade, but are difficult to measure and to incorporate into modelling analysis.  This partly reflects their complexity (e.g. some can actually be trade-enhancing) but also a lack of data.  However, preliminary assessments suggest that they can have a greater impact than tariffs and continue to distort trade even in the absence of tariffs.  This poses a challenge to modelling analysis.  Apparently, the UK food and drink sector is probably more exposed than agriculture is to such issues, so there’s yet another avenue for further research!   As an aside, I was depressed to have my doubts about the feasibility of resolving technical issues around myriad standards and bureaucratic procedures by March 2019 confirmed by several speakers and discussants: do UK Ministers genuinely believe that solutions can be found more quickly? 

Overall an informative and stimulating day, confirming that there is still much to do and to be learnt: the Chairman wryly noted the resurgence of interest in agricultural economics and even asked the Minister if he would reinstate the old MAFF scholarships for post-graduate work, but got no commitment (as to be expected in these continued times of austerity 😉).