Before the Centre for Rural Economy: A blog in two parts from Chris Ritson. PART II: Life in the Agriculture Building circa 1968

Following on from the introduction to how the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) came into existence, Professor Christopher Ritson takes a look at the Faculty of Agriculture at Newcastle 50 years ago and comments on some of the main things which have changed since then.

The Agriculture Building. Photo credit: Pattanapong Tiwasing

Have you ever wondered why our building has an eighth floor, like a set of portacabins stuck on a flat roof?

Before I tell you, it is necessary to state that Part II of this blog comes with a health warning. To the best of my knowledge, Part I was an accurate, mainly factual, account of the evolution at Newcastle of social science related to agriculture, food and the rural economy in the 25 years prior to the establishment of the CRE. Part II draws on my experience as a Research Associate in the Agricultural Adjustment Unit (AAU) for one year, 1968/1969. It is based on ‘things I was told’ then, and also when I had returned to Newcastle as Head of the Agricultural Marketing Department ten years later. It contains  some ‘conjecture’ on my part!

The Eighth Floor

The Agriculture Building, designed in the 1950s for the Faculty of Agriculture at King’s College, is a classic example of soulless post- war British architecture. The Faculty consisted of seven departments – so, one floor for each department? Well, not quite. Agricultural Engineering occupied the Porter Building at the bottom of St Thomas Street, but otherwise it was Agriculture on floor 1; Agricultural Economics on 2; Agricultural Zoology and Plant Science (subsequently merged as Agricultural Biology) on 3 and 4; Soil Science on 5; and Agricultural Biochemistry on 6. Floor 7 was common user labs. Thus when the Ministry of Agriculture funded the addition of an eighth department, some  extra accommodation had to be added on the roof. That is where the Department of Agricultural Marketing was located until the Faculty expanded during the 1980s into the vacated Old Medical School building across the road.

The eighth floor also contained a glass “Insect House” at the south end, so marketing staff in need of a break could go onto the roof and watch the locusts flying around. The Insect House was not the only wildlife kept in the Agriculture Building. If you left the building via the basement then you would usually hear a few “Baa’s” on your way out, from the sheep kept there.

The 8th floor addition is just visable on the top of the Agriculture Building. Photo credit: Pattanapong Tiwasing

Two new professors

Having 6-8 small departments of roughly equal size in each faculty was typical of the University structure at that time. Each department would have an “Established” named Chair, and “The Professor” was usually also the Head of Department. However, in 1960 there was no Professor of Agricultural Economics at Newcastle. So how did a nondescript backwater of the subject acquire two of them and large injections of funding to develop Agricultural Marketing and the AAU? Elsewhere in the country, agricultural economics was characterized by a small number of high-profile individuals who dominated their own local territory. So, ‘what I was told’ is that Agricultural marketing was first offered by the Ministry to another English university, but the incumbent professor there turned it down, because it would lead to ‘divide and rule’. Thus, the lack of a dominant figure who might feel threatened by a second Chair was instrumental in Newcastle being chosen. 

There were two attempts at filling the new Chair in Agricultural Marketing, and eventually, the head of Agricultural Economics, Mark Carpenter, was appointed. The Ministry representative on the Selection Committee was their deputy head of Economics, John Ashton, and he persuaded King’s College that what they really needed was a Professor of Agricultural Economics as well, and that he was the man for the job.  The status of a professor at that time is evidenced by the fact that John Ashton had written into his appointment that the Chair in Agricultural Economics would be “the Senior Chair in this area”. Soon after his appointment, John Ashton met the representative from the Kellogg Foundation (who was in search of a suitable location in Europe to promote agricultural adjustment) at King’s Cross. By the time the train reached Newcastle Central Station, the whole thing was sorted (doubtless with a degree of assistance from the buffet bar).

Experience as a Research Associate

The AAU was a very fertile place for a young researcher to learn his trade. There was a variety of projects to work on, and excellent guidance from senior staff. One who was particularly supportive of me was a retired Australian trade diplomat, Frank Grogan. He had the capacity to incorporate the word ‘bloody’ into nearly every sentence. The one that has always stuck in my mind was his subtle refinement of Ricardian trade theory into ‘Comparative Bloody Advantage’.

One piece of work that I was given concerned a survey of Northern dairy farms commissioned by the Ministry in which the usual summary tables did not really tell you anything. John Ashton asked if I could (what would now be described as) ‘sex it up’ a bit with some quantitative analysis. Quantitative analysis then involved putting data on to a set of punch cards, taking them to ‘The University Computer’, and returning the following day to collect the printout. The data set was remarkable in that nothing seemed to be related to anything else, no matter how rational the hypothesis – e.g. economies of scale. But then I had a eureka moment when the printout came back with a fantastic R2; until, that is, I realized I had managed to put the same variable on both sides of the equation.

Back to the eighth floor

The staff complement for the Department of Agricultural Marketing consisted of a professor, six lecturers, a demonstrator (teaching assistant), a computational officer, two clerical staff (typists), and a butcher, Ken (not joking). Ken had been employed  given the departments  intitial research having been commissioned by the Meat and Livestock Commission on consumer attitudes within the red meat sector. One evening Ken worried that he had left the oven on in the meat laboratory (kitchen) on the eighth floor. He telephoned University Security and asked them to check. Half an hour later the security officer telephoned back and said he was sorry, but the Agriculture Building did not have an eighth floor. (He believed the lift!)

For the Agricultural Marketing department, at first, the working week included Saturday morning. (probablya legacy of its Ministry funding, and not a University-wide practice).  On Saturday mornings, Mark Carpenter would stroll round the roof to look in every office window to check that all were present. Once he observed one of the lecturers, David Lesser, with his feet up reading The Times, and told him subsequently that he was not there “to educate himself”. For most staff, working on the eighth floor on Saturday mornings was viewed mainly as an overture to The Hotspur at lunch time. This requirement to work on Saturday mornings did not last long, though the Hotspur tradition lived on for more many more years.

Plus Ça Change

The Agriculture Building in the sun. Photo credit: Pattanapong Tiwasing

So, “things were different in them days”. What stands out was the university structure of many small departments, in faculties not much bigger than today’s Schools. (Large Schools of course then have to create divisions with ‘line managers’, a bit like the old departments.) There were few professors, and virtually all occupied ‘Established Chairs’. Promotion to Professor almost always meant moving to a different university. This was the case for Ken Thompson, Alan Buckwell, and David Harvey (as I mentioned in Part I), and indeed also for me.

One other major difference occurred to me while writing this. During my first few years in the agricultural marketing department, the degree of Agricultural and Food Marketing had an annual intake of 50-55 students, which was very large for a small department. Of those who reached graduation, typically, 30% would be awarded an upper second, 60% a lower second and 10% a Third. Every other year or so, a First Class degree would be awarded to an outstanding student (a different ratio to today’s intake).

One of the merits of a small department, with perhaps just a single degree programme, was the sense of identity and community spirit it gave to both staff and students. This is lacking in large Schools. Alumni from 40 years ago have no idea to which bit of the current university they relate. However, I think the CRE, at least for staff and research students, has recreated this lost sense of identity – of belonging to something – of a community of like-minded individuals with similar interests. Let us hope they do not now decide to merge the CRE with something else, to create “a larger more efficient” unit.

Before the Centre for Rural Economy: A blog in two parts from Chris Ritson. Part I: How did it happen?

With the Centre for Rural Economy fast approaching its 30th birthday next year, Emeritus Professor Christopher Ritson recounts the 25 years of social science agriculture, food and the rural economy prior to the centre’s establishment.

The Centre for Rural Economy sign. Photo Credit: Pattanapong Tiwasing

In this first Blog I want to put on record the string of events over a period of 25 years which led to the establishment of the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE). In Part II, I take a more light-hearted look at life in the Agriculture Building 50 years ago.

­Where did it all begin?

Oddly, it started with the arrival of Agricultural Marketing at Newcastle. During the 1950s, the UK moved rapidly from early post-war food shortage and rationing, in which the policy priority was increasing output and improving the productivity of domestic agriculture, to the problem becoming declining and unstable farm product prices. The challenges of this period were reminiscent of those faced in 1930s, which had led to the establishment of Marketing Boards for most agricultural commodities.

In this context, the Ministry of Agriculture, which had developed the network of farm business data collection based in agricultural economics departments throughout the country, decided that agricultural economics research needed to move away from concentrating on farm production economics towards studying the economics of post-farm gate markets. In the early 1960s, it financed the creation of a Chair and Department of Agricultural Marketing at King’s College, Newcastle (then part of Durham University, but soon to become independent as the University of Newcastle upon Tyne). Here is an extract from the press release issued under the name of the Rector of King’s College, Charles Bosanquet:

“Experience has convinced both the Ministry and King’s College that there is an extreme shortage of economists adequately trained to study distribution economics, and that the changes in the agricultural policy of the UK that may be expected will make it desirable to build up studies in marketing to the point at which they at least equal the national effort in production economics.”

Why Newcastle was chosen for this substantial investment is something of a mystery, as there were, at the time, around a dozen agricultural economics centres throughout the UK with a more distinguish academic profile than Newcastle. (I can offer one explanation, albeit based only on anecdotal evidence. For this you will have to wait for Part II of this blog.)

Agricultural Adjustment

This was the first step in the journey towards the broader study of the rural economy – the application of “economic principles to the problems of identifying and satisfying the needs and preferences of consumers, by the most effective use of markets, processing plants, transport, advertising, and retail outlets.” (Again, from the Bosanquet press release.)

In parallel with this was the view that the structure of farming itself needed to “adjust” to the way agricultural product markets and consumer food demand were evolving. So, just a few years after the Ministry of Agriculture’s finance of agricultural marketing at King’s College, there was a second massive investment, this time by the Kellogg Foundation, to establish the Agricultural Adjustment Unit (AAU). The Grant was secured by the recently appointed Professor of Agricultural Economics, John Ashton (more of this in Part II), and provided five years funding for six research associates, together with support staff.

The upshot was that over a period of 10 years, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, agricultural economics at Newcastle was transformed from something of a backwater into one of the leading UK centres for social science research related to agriculture, food and the rural economy.

Agricultural Marketing at Newcastle was awarded the top grade in the first national Research Assessment Exercise. However, the main legacy of the agricultural marketing initiative turned out to be in teaching. The Chair in Agricultural Marketing is reputed to be the first anywhere in Europe with the word “marketing” in its title. The Department’s MSc in Marketing (note, just “marketing”, not agricultural marketing) was the first marketing degree in the UK, and the BSc Agricultural and Food Marketing, the first “marketing” undergraduate degree. Gradually, marketing came to dominate “agriculture and food” with many new teaching initiatives, most of which have now been transferred to the Business School.

The baton for meeting the Ministry requirement for agricultural economics research to support “the changes in agricultural policy in the UK that may be expected” was, in part, picked up by three members of staff in the Agricultural Economics department, Ken Thompson, Allan Buckwell, and David Harvey, who together published a book on the subject, titled “The Cost of the Common Agricultural Policy” (1982). Soon all three were to leave for Chairs at Aberdeen, Wye College, and Reading respectively, though David was only on loan to Reading for a few years!

Countryside Change

Former CRE member Martin Whitby. Photo Credit: https://doi.org/10.1111/1477-9552.12238

Perhaps the most important step on the path towards the creation of the CRE itself was the work of Martin Whitby. Martin was a lecturer in agricultural economics during the time of the AAU, and a major contributor to its output. Part of the “adjustment” envisaged for the agricultural sector concerned rural employment and labour migration, and this was Martin’s area of expertise. When the funding for the AAU ended, Martin carried his interest forward with a sort of “slimmed down” version of it.

The AAU eventually became the Countryside Change Unit (CCU), following a successful bid to a call from the ESRC in 1987 by Martin and David Harvey (by then back at Newcastle) for research into the changing nature of the British countryside. The ESRC funded two centres in response to their call, the CCU at Newcastle (three full time researchers for five years – of whom one was current CRE director Guy Garrod), and a similar unit at University College London (UCL), co-led by Philip Lowe.

The creation of the CRE

When the Chancellor of Newcastle University, the Duke of Northumberland, died in 1988, a funding appeal was launched in his memory. A blueprint for a “Centre for Rural Economy”, written by Martin Whitby, was put forward from the Faculty of Agriculture in response to a university-wide invitation for proposals for the funding raised. Given the dominance of the Medical School at Newcastle, it was expected that funds from appeals of this kind would usually finance medical research. However, Martin’s proposal struck a chord with the land-owning Northern contributors to the Duke of Northumberland Appeal, and the proposal to create a Centre for Rural Economy was the successful application.

That the Centre would be located in the Faculty of Agriculture (then in the process of becoming the larger Faculty of Agriculture and Biological Sciences) was not a foregone conclusion. The Head of the Department of Geography, John Goddard, put forward an academic case for the Centre to be in Geography as part of, or at least alongside, the high-profile Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies (CURDS). However, the Agriculture Dean, Keith Syers (the Head of a faculty was then called “The Dean”) told me that the message coming from the major donors to the appeal fund was that they regarded it as “unthinkable” that the Centre would not be located “in Agriculture”.

Nevertheless, Geography was accorded a role in the establishment of the CRE. John Goddard and I (at the time, head of the recently merged Department of Agricultural Economics and Food Marketing) jointly undertook a series of informal interviews with long-list candidates for what had become designated as “The Duke of Northumberland Professor of Rural Economy”. Four candidates went forward for final interview. The successful candidate was the Director of the UCL CCU, Philip Lowe. In addition, a personal Chair was also secured for Martin Whitby.

Thus, the CRE was born. In Part II I take a more light-hearted look at life in the Agriculture Building 50 years ago.

How should the British countryside look post-Brexit?

There have been plenty of discussions surrounding how the UK farming subsidy system should change with the UK leaving the EU following the Brexit vote. There has been considerably little attention paid to the changes this might bring for the UK countryside, and what the public want the UK countryside to look like. In our recent paper, we looked to address this through the use of a national survey and innovative collage-making exercise.

Wind turbines compete for space with cows, wildflower meadows and birds of prey. Photo credit: Niki Rust

The EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has provided farmers with subsidies, traditionally based on how much land they managed, but in more recent revisions, on actions farmers take to provide several environmental benefits as well. Through Brexit, the UK has the opportunity to develop its own agricultural policies to shape the farming system. The 2020 Agriculture Bill will form the basis of the replacement of CAP payments for farmers, and looks to continue the push towards delivering environmental benefits by offering payment to farmers not only for the production of food but for the delivery of public goods such as habitat creation, soil protection and carbon storage. Switching from supporting farmers primarily for food production to focusing on more environmental benefits could significantly alter how UK farmland looks and functions. As the new schemes will be funded by taxpayers, the public should have a say in how the country’s farmland will be managed and looks.

So what do the UK pubic want from their countryside? We used two complementary methods:

1) A more traditional nationwide survey of 2,050 adults which asked participants to rate ten images of diverse UK farming landscapes, and;

2) A collage-creating exercise with 80 people, where they were asked to create two landscapes: firstly for an environmentally friendly farm, and secondly their ideal farm. This was designed to provide a creative way for individuals to demonstrate their vision of Britain’s farmed landscape, and allowed people to express their ideas and desires in ways that are hard to capture with surveys and verbal interviews.

Livestock: nice to look at, bad for the planet

What we found really surprised us. Whilst there were some differences in relation to socio-demographic characteristics, both the surveys and collages revealed that most people in the study liked seeing livestock in their ideal landscape. Yet many thought that for a farm to be environmentally friendly, it should have less livestock due to the greenhouse gas emissions they produce. Instead, most participants thought “green” farms should have lots of trees (good for the atmosphere and air pollution) and renewable energy installations, though many admitted that they didn’t like the look of wind farms. Interestingly, there was no significant difference in the kind of landscapes preferred by farmers compared with the rest of the public we surveyed.

Diversity, in relation to agricultural practices and increased biodiversity, was a key theme arising from the collages. Most of the people involved in the study said they were keen for farms to produce a mixture of food and benefits for the environment – such as carbon storage, wildflowers for insects to pollinate, and trees to improve air quality – rather than focusing on just food or environmental benefits. The majority of the people surveyed also wanted to increase food production in the UK rather than importing food from elsewhere.

Most people wanted the countryside to generate more green energy. Photo credit: Niki Rust

What next for agricultural policy in the UK?

Our findings highlight the complexity involved in making green agricultural policy, touching on a few of the competing demands and trade-offs involved in producing food whilst still protecting the environment. For example, while most participants in our study stated that they were less interested in these landscapes producing cheap food, studies on buyer behaviour show that consumers, especially those on lower incomes, are mainly motivated by price when it comes to food. Finding the right balance will therefore be tricky. The UK government clearly has its work cut out devising policies that produce food in an environmentally friendly way at prices cheap enough to ensure retailers don’t source more food than necessary from abroad, essentially displacing any environmental savings that an improved farming system could offer the UK.

The research was undertaken by CRE colleagues Niki Rust, Francis Naab, Lucia Rehackova, Beth Clark and Sophie Tindale, alongside Amber Abrams (University of Cape Town), Courtney Hughes (Gov. of Alberta, Canada) and Bethann Garramon Merkle (University of Wyoming). The full paper can be accessed here.

Large-scale business survey to shed light on rural resilience during COVID

There is little research about how small firms in rural areas manage crises and how they recover. The National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE), co-led by the Centre for Rural Economy, is launching a survey to explore how rural businesses have respondend to COVID-19.

NICRE co-director Prof Stephen Roper from the Enterprise Research Centre at Warwick University

Rural resilience has received relatively little attention. Over the next two months NICRE is speaking to more than 4,000 rural and farm businesses in the North East, South West and Midlands to find out more about the strategies they have put in place during the pandemic to increase their resilience and their plans and expectations for the future.

Whilst every business in the UK has been challenged in some way over the last year due to COVID-19, those in rural areas have been some of the hardest hit. NICRE co-director Prof Stephen Roper, from the Enterprise Research Centre at Warwick University is leading the survey: “Our large-scale survey fills an important gap in our current knowledge of rural enterprise and aims to improve how local and national government support rural businesses in the future.”

Alongside resilience, the survey will explore how firms’ local networks have contributed to survival and growth, the impact of financial pressures on businesses, families and communities as well as issues around workforce, the availability of broadband, and aspects of local supply chains. The survey will also seek the views of a comparator sample of urban firms with owners contacted at random by independent market research agency OMB Research. Results of the surveys will be available in the autumn.

NICRE, which was established to foster rural enterprise and unlock the potential in rural economies, is also keen to speak businesses in more detail. Prof Roper said: “We would be very interested to talk in-depth to the owners of rural and farming firms about how you and your business have coped during the pandemic, the challenges you have faced, and what you think about the support you have received from Government and local agencies.

“We’d really like to hear your views to help us shed light on rural resilience and contribute, through NICRE, to developing future policy support for businesses in rural areas.”

Any business interested in giving their views should contact Prof Roper at Stephen.Roper@wbs.ac.uk

For more information about NICRE email nicre@newcastle.ac.uk or follow @NICRErural on Twitter.

Rural Enterprise Hubs as a valuable resource for the rural economy

Ian Merrell has recently returned to the University after a spell of working at Exeter University. Here he draws on findings from his research into Rural Enterprise Hubs to highlight their value for the rural economy.

Photo credit: Newcastle University

I’m a qualitative researcher in rural development and enterprise and I’ve recently joined NICRE as a post-doctoral researcher, after a stint away from the North East. 

I am somewhat of a product of Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy’s excellent tradition of educating the next generation of land managers, farmers and environmental scientists. I’ve completed a BSc in Countryside Management, MSc in Rural Development and a PhD supervised by NICRE’s own Prof Jeremy Phillipson, Prof Matthew Gorton and Dr Paul Cowie and I’m delighted to be working with the three of them again on this exciting venture.

My thesis investigated the North East’s rich stock of Rural Enterprise Hubs, which are physical infrastructures designed to support rural businesses by providing workspaces, meeting rooms, kitchen facilities, networking groups and learning seminars. We recognised the importance of these hubs for rural development, but at the time knew little of their successful internal dynamics, the benefits they provide to tenants, and their wider role in promoting entrepreneurial and innovative behaviour. Another aspect of the thesis was to investigate the appropriateness and relevance of the regional governance system for fostering innovation, particularly for rural areas.

When I heard that the proposal to establish NICRE was successful, I knew it was the environment I wanted to immerse myself in! Working alongside the private, public and third sector, as well as bottom-up initiatives from the community to solve some of society’s grand challenges – sign me up!

I intend to continue my exploration of Rural Enterprise Hubs as a valuable resource for the rural economy at NICRE. One of our main aims is to enable rural enterprise and innovation through knowledge exchange networks to overcome challenges and barriers associated with the rural environment – Rural Enterprise Hubs are an excellent mechanism to help aid this process. NICRE will be a key component in a Quadruple (Nth-ruple) Helix – a model of governing innovation that my PhD found to be highly appropriate for integrating rural areas into the larger strategic plans of regional development. I thoroughly look forward to working in this model alongside great partners to create real-world impact and contribute towards some of the most important challenges of our time.

I will be drawing on my other experience in my role at NICRE. During my PhD I worked as a research associate on two EU projects which, after presenting my research on Rural Enterprise Hubs, have since pursued the idea of creating hubs in their regions. I also worked with an excellent team of researchers at the Centre for Rural Policy Research at Exeter University before joining NICRE where I embarked on the ambitious (and somewhat unknown to me) task of coaching rural tourism businesses, inspired by the tradition of action research. I met a wide array of businesses, each facing their own challenges and with their own inspiring ideas to overcome them. Never underestimate the innovative potential of rural micro-businesses!

There are certainly exciting times ahead.

This was first published on the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE) blog.

Bringing diversity to agriculture

Just how diverse is agriculture? How do we ensure that all feel that they belong? How can we expand accessibility going forward? These were just some of the questions posed at a dedicated panel discussion at the Real Northern Farming Conference this week.

A female farmer is crouched down tying a metal gate to a metal pole
Franje, who farms in Northumberland. Image credit: Joanne Coates

Diversity in agriculture is not a new topic of discussion. Yet, despite changes in policy and initiatives from industry, agriculture is still seen and experienced as a white male career, particularly in the UK. High profile appointments such as National Farmers Union president Minette Batters have started to challenge these preconceptions, yet there remains little change in the wider industry. So, what of the experiences of those who are not traditionally seen on the agricultural front lines, or throughout the supply chain, and what benefits are there from increasing diversity going forward?

As part of the inaugural Northern Real Farming Conference, researchers and practitioners within the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) and School of Natural and Environmental Sciences at Newcastle University hosted a discussion panel on bringing diversity to agriculture. Everyone involved presented based on their research and practice-based expertise: Sally Shortall spoke of her work with the Scottish Government’s ‘Women in Agriculture’ taskforce; Hannah Budge presented her research on the experiences of the often-overlooked women in the agriculture in the Scottish Islands; Joanne Coates highlighted her experiences of working with women in agriculture during her current residency within CRE; Ruth McAreavey discussed her research into migrant workers in the meat processing and mushroom sectors. This was followed by some insightful reflections from Hannah Davis and Julia Cooper, including their own experiences from academia and farming.

Held virtually due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the online format of the panel discussion created some excellent conversation, both in the main session and in the virtual chat. It was interesting to hear a range of voices from different sectors of agriculture, including what bringing diversity to these would look like.

A number of challenges to bringing diversity were raised, including issues with existing power and hierarchical structures, the lack of access to employment support compared to other industries, e.g. maternity cover and other working practices, and the need for ensuring opportunities for those pursuing a career in agricultural after finishing their education.

The discussions also highlighted several overarching points that need addressing moving forward, specifically:

  1. The importance of inclusivity: ensuring that all those who would like to be involved in agriculture have opportunities to do so. For those already involved, ensuring that they have the opportunity to voice their views and have their say, thus ensuring equal opportunities and rights.
  2. Making the invisible visible: the need for the stories of those who are traditionally less visible in agriculture to be told. As Joanne highlighted, if no one tells these stories then these individuals or groups are not represented, or are not presented fairly. Together with point 1, this also provides the opportunity for more, and more diverse, role models.
  3. Ensuring wider engagement: there is a need for all involved in agriculture to engage in some way or form with improving diversity. One example highlighted during the discussion was the farming press and ensuring that it included content for the less represented audience.
  4. Need for interventions at a range of levels: given the size of the farming industry and the range of different stakeholders involved, there is a need for action at a number of different levels. This includes support and initiatives from industry and the introduction of policy to ensure that there is a push across all areas.

Although these points are by no means exhaustive, addressing them will hopefully start to effect change. The need for increased diversity is increasingly more apparent as highlighted by an analogy from one session attendee which nicely sums up the issue: “if there is a monocrop anywhere in the system then you are compromising the farm”. More needs to be done in terms of shifting agriculture in the right direction to ensure ‘diversification’ continues.

Soil, Fungi and Chthonic Communication

Humans aren’t the only ones who send messages. In his third guest blog, visual artist Shane Finan talks how nature sends messages underground.

A photograph of a spoon of soil taken in a forest, with trees in the background
In a spoonful of soil you can find up to 100m of threads of fungal hyphae, as well as thousands of living organisms. Photo credit: Shane Finan

As I approach a residency that looks at networks in the forest, I have been investigating the soil and how messages are passed below the ground. Regardless of any other area of investigation on this project, soil provides the link that makes all other things possible. The idea of place is tied to the structure of soil – the demarcation of one place from another not by borders but by identity is how people perceive ‘place’. The earth under our feet is the connector that allows us to create place (although advanced sailors like Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook in the 1700s and purportedly could always point to his home island in any weather without aid of map or compass, may disagree).

The word ‘chthonic’ is defined as ‘subterranean’ or, in mythology, ‘of or relating to the underworld’. This word provides a strong basis for a historically enabled artwork that encompasses the underworld as a story-telling device and as a medium of transfer of ideas.

We often think of soil as a limiter, as the soil of one’s nation creating borders between places, or as a solid in an otherwise non-solid space. But soil is also a source, and a transmitter. Plants grow from the nutrients provided by soil. The roots of trees connect into the fungal bodies via threads of mycelium that weave through the soil. In a teaspoon of healthy soil there are as many microorganisms as there are humans living on the African continent (Nature, 2011). In the same space, there can be between 10 and 100 metres of mycelium curled around the miniature rocks and dust (Bragg, Boddy, Gurr, & Johnson, 2018).

A photograph of tree roots with soil attached to them, jutting from right to left. The soil is dry, implying that it has been exposed and the tree has fallen down.
Fungi and trees communicate at the level of roots, passing messages below the soil. Photo credit: Shane Finan

Fungi and plants often work together, forming the ‘Wood-Wide Web’. Although there are common partnerships, many mycorrhizal (green plant and fungus) networks are led by chance, where fungi find themselves next to unfamiliar trees. The history of mycorrhizal networks is as much as 420 million years old, among the oldest living relationships we know of (Remy, Taylor, Hass, & Kerp, 1994). In these partnerships, fungi and trees exchange water, nutrients, and messages.

Healthy soil is needed for the woods, and the Wood-Wide Web, to grow. The soil becomes a transmitter, providing nutrients, passageway for insects and other small creatures, and growing space for roots and fungi. Soil, as a transmitter, allows the movement of animals, water and roots, but also allows the transfer of parasites, chemicals, and other invaders from neighbouring areas. The fungi that find the most comfortable, collaborative environment can thrive and grow.

The underground ignores human demarcations and borders just as the overground does – roots do not know where one field ends and another begins. The delicate ownership of soil, and the ability to grow, is important and has been highlighted in recent years by artists, farmers and activists. Fungicides kill the helpful fungi as well as the harmful ones; pesticides kill pollinators as well as pests; chemicals sprayed in one area can affect neighbouring places unintentionally.

As with fungal networks, human infrastructural networks (water, electricity, internet) also creep through the soil, sometimes, unfortunately, coming into competition with tree roots or mycelia. These are usually controlled by states or companies and maintained locally by individuals or teams employed by these larger bodies.

A photograph of a sign that reads Danger Underground Cables in faded lettering. The sign is old, and overgrowth of grass and shrubs is beginning to cover it up.
Forests and human networks both pass messages underground. Photo credit: Shane Finan

Cables for telephone, internet or electricity stream through the landscape both over and underground. These structures create abstract networks of interconnectivity that follow less ordered patterns than in planned urban areas, flowing with the landscape around streams or forests.

The potential for ad-hoc networks to provide an unstructured system of communication is one that has been explored by technologists and artists as a way to ensure community control over network infrastructures (O’Dwyer, 2020). In places as diverse as Zambia and Thailand, rural ad-hoc networks that transmit short-range signals that bounce data from one home to another are established in villages by local residents (Johnson, Belding, Almeroth, & van Stam, 2010; Lertsinsrubtavee et al., 2015). These locally coordinated networks decentralise the ownership of the internet infrastructure and place it in the hands of those using the connectors. Decentralised networks are arguably stronger, less open to corruption, and can be self-regulated.

Transmissions happen underfoot all the time. They pass through the soil that seems so solid underfoot. Soil has to be imagined not as a solid, but as a transmitter, and my artworks are looking at soil as a transmitter, a point of movement of messages, nutrients, and life. It is only through this understanding that the chthonic can really be understood.


References

Bragg, M., Boddy, L., Gurr, S., & Johnson, D. (Bragg, M., Boddy, L., Gurr, S., & Johnson, D.). V. Brignell (Producer). (2018, 15/02/2018). In Our Time [Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09r3nwl

Johnson, D. L., Belding, E. M., Almeroth, K., & van Stam, G. (2010). Internet usage and performance analysis of a rural wireless network in Macha, Zambia. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 4th ACM Workshop on Networked Systems for Developing Regions.

Lertsinsrubtavee, A., Wang, L., Sathiaseelan, A., Crowcroft, J., Weshsuwannarugs, N., Tunpan, A., & Kanchanasut, K. (2015). Understanding internet usage and network locality in a rural community wireless mesh network. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the Asian Internet Engineering Conference.

Nature. (2011). Microbiology by numbers. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 9(9), 628-628. doi:10.1038/nrmicro2644

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Reflection upon neoliberal rural Chile: Social upheaval, a referendum and the adoption of a profitable niche.

Carlos Bolomey Cordova is a second-year PhD student at the CRE. He is researching the livelihoods of agricultural producers in southern Chile, and here, discusses how a hardcore neoliberal logic has shaped agriculture in the region in recent decades. He also reflects on how this relates to Chile’s upcoming constitutional referendum.  

Social upheaval and a referendum

Towards the end of 2019, people across Chile took to the streets to protest the country’s hardcore neoliberal socioeconomic model – imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973 – 1990) and further consolidated by successive democratic governments.

Chile’s neoliberal rationale is reflected in the liberal free trade agreements it has signed with most of the world, as well as in an array of reforms that undermined the country’s social fabric. The latter have included the abandonment of both public education and public health, and the privatisation of natural assets such as water and copper. 

When Chile embraced the global market, it became one of the most developed countries in Latin America. However, despite having the region’s second largest per-capita GDP, Chile also has staggering levels of inequality. This has been one of the primary drivers for the recent protests, during which many Chilean citizens have called for dignity and social justice.

In response to these protests, politicians have called a referendum on Chile’s 1980 Pinochet-era constitution, set to be held later this year. This brings the possibility of not only developing a democratically-written constitution, but also of setting boundaries to a fiercely neoliberal model under which private property is the central right and state interference in social life is kept to a bare minimum.

From grain to fruit: Neoliberalism and agriculture in southern Chile

Last winter I travelled from Newcastle to the ‘La Araucania’ region in southern Chile to undertake my fieldwork. Here I witnessed first-hand some of the contradictions underpinning the neoliberal rationale regarding agriculture.

When La Araucania was incorporated into the Chilean national territory in the 1880s, following a military occupation of Indigenous land, it became a region devoted to cereal production. However, farmers across the region are now switching their crops to fruits.

This transition has occurred because of two complementary drivers. Firstly, climate change has been expanding the temperate weather of central Chile southwards, making southern regions warmer and therefore more hospitable to fruit production. Secondly, public policies have encouraged farmers to adopt high-value crops such as berries, primarily for export.

A traditional smallholder field in which maize, beans and quinoa are all grown in the same plot. Photo credit: Carlos Bolomey Cordova

As a result, many farmers have reaped the rewards of higher crop prices and access to export markets. They have been able to capitalise on Chile’s numerous free trade agreements, as well as its geographical location, which makes it a counter-seasonal producer in relation to the northern hemisphere. Yet, not every farmer in the region has benefitted.  

Some farmers I spoke to at a local farmers’ market have not been able to grow berries because they do not have access to enough water to grow them (berry production typically requires significantly more water than grain production). This is partly a legacy of Pinochet’s constitution, which allowed for land and water to be considered as two separate ‘goods’. For instance, someone who owns property immediately next to a river cannot use water from that river if they have not bought the right to use it. The same problem arises when farmers dig wells: they must register these under the ‘Code of Water Management’, an expensive and bureaucratic procedure. Hence, many small farmers rely on rain water only, a system better-suited to grain production.

If access to water is not fairly distributed among farmers, those who are not able produce higher-profit crops, such as berries, often end up taking on work as wage labours or seasonal farmworkers. Within Indigenous communities, people are increasingly moving away from a highly diversified subsistence farming to selling their labour in the thriving (monocropping) fruit industry. In addition to locking people into a cycle of precarious work, this presents a threat to local biodiversity and the survival of traditional crops, as biodiverse subsistence plots give way to mono-cropped fruit fields.

Reliance on an export model compounds these issues, as producers become increasingly exposed to the fluctuations of the global market. While the government continues to implement schemes aimed at fostering the transition to an export-oriented mode of agricultural production, it disregards the fact that in the process, many producers’ livelihoods have become more precarious.

A government-issued poster encouraging farmers to grow flowers for export
Photo credit: Carlos Bolomey Cordova

A large banner at the entrance of the local rural development office alludes to a previous pilot that sought to help producers to export flowers, illuminating the government’s export-oriented focus. One official said to me that the main problem with the ministry of agriculture is that they are obsessed with export. He added: “the government supports many niche initiatives, but these niches often die… it happened the same with the strawberry growers of an indigenous community here”.

It is crucial to reflect on how a neoliberal logic entails a specific way of addressing agriculture, generating a set of unintended outcomes that obscures those who are left behind by development. The upcoming referendum will shine a light on many of these issues. Some farmers see it as an opportunity to claim water as a common good that cannot be privatised, and to cast doubt on the neoliberal model that has relegated many of them to poverty. Others in the rural elite will fight to retain their water rights and their access to an export-oriented market. Certainly, this conversation will develop as the referendum approaches.

Gender, arts and farming

Centre for Rural Economy artist in residence Joanne Coates has been exploring reasons for gender bias as part of her residency. Although the Covid-19 lockdown has halted her artwork, here she highlights how feminism and women’s leadership are viewed in farming and further afield.

Close up of crops. Credit: Joanne Coates

In the art historical world, gender bias is not a secret. Ever since stories have been told, they have been told through the voice, seen through the eyes, and felt through the experience of the masculine. As recently as 2012, only 4% of artists in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) were women. In my own medium, photography, only 15% of photographers are women. In the industry, women earn on average 40% less than men[1]. The situation is no different in agriculture. according to the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, with only 14.9 % of registered farm holders in the UK being women.

I have recently begun working with Professor Sally Shortall at the Centre for Rural Economy, and our conversations about gender bias get my mind racing marathons. One discussion brought me back to a time when I told a high-up middle-class (obviously) man in the arts that I was dating a farmer, and his exact words were, “you’ll just end up a farmer’s wife.” I can’t think of many jobs where you just end up somebody’s wife. I think of my partner’s Mum, the work she does for the farm, the behind-the-scenes running of farms women have done for centuries. Are these women ‘just farmers’ wives’?

Farmer Izzy Credit: Joanne Coates

Since December I’ve been immersed in research, preparing myself to move to rural Northumberland for the practical side of my residency. Lockdown was announced the day before I was due to move. I stayed put, in the lowest part of the North East, in the furthest-up part of North Yorkshire. A bleak rural landscape, my dog for company, (slow) internet, and my partner, a farmer. It is definitely a challenge to how I usually work. I’ve found solace in online conversations with people I’m yet to meet through email chains, talking about gender roles with women who are living the farming experience.

On one of my lunchtime escapes I was listening to the WNYC podcast ‘Dolly Parton’s America’ and two and two finally added to four. One moment in particular helped to explain much about the gender imbalance in farming and how portrayals of feminism link within this.

Dolly’s fans hail her as the original third wave feminist icon. However, Dolly doesn’t view herself that way. When the podcast presenter asks if she thinks of herself as feminist, her response is clear: “NO I DO NOT. I think of myself as a woman in business. I love men, I have a brother, a dad, a lot of cousins. I look like a woman but I think like a man, but I think like a woman too.”[2]

The podcast goes on to hear from Sarah Smarsh, who wrote a book called Heartland, and writes a lot about Dolly and Class. Coincidentally, Sarah grew up in a rural area, on a farm in a poor area 40 miles outside of Wichita, Kansas. She highlights how femininity has changed within the portrayal of feminism, with Dolly Parton paving the way in breaking down these stereotypes. To quote:

The feminism of the 1970s and 80s, it’s where you had a lot of women start with traditional roles in both the workplace and the home. That’s a moment. When women who had business ambitions were being encouraged to sort of downplay their own quote unquote femininity. You don’t need to wear makeup. You can cut your hair short and put on the pants. During the second wave Dolly is one of the first to represent the future third-wave. She went, like, in the opposite direction which was like you have a problem with my tits then here. They are hanging out. She played it up and was like, you can deal with it. I think I’m more kind of a millennial spirit of approach to feminism… There’s this idea of what feminists are supposed to look like. Feminism can be whatever that it is you wanted to be as a woman. You want to have big hair and big boobs and wear rhinestones then do it.”

What she said next also struck a chord with me. Sarah explained how women live feminism in different ways: “Let me put it through my own experience. I had a very complicated relationship to the term feminist when I was a teenager. In America they choose to sort of like feel this backlash (to feminism) that is full throated now. It was like burgeoning when I was a teenager and I could feel it. Certain words have a different life in those two worlds, but there are women who as we speak are living the tenets of feminism more strongly and in a more badass manner than women who wear the word on a T-shirt and March in the marches.”[3] This struck a chord with me.

Country landscape Credit: Joanne Coates

Sarah is from a farming community, and I’m part of a farming community. They can be closed communities, with outsiders not fully understanding their complexities. Rural villages and hamlets are not big cities, universities or towns. The language used is different, the way communities engage is different. Women have worked on farms for hundreds of years, they have supported and pioneered. The female shepherdess isn’t a new phenomenon. The language around being a woman in a traditional role, and the more recent trend of using ‘feminist icon’ as a term for a leader, makes many feel uncomfortable. This, however, doesn’t mean they are not. It is in their actions. We still have to look at and deal with the lack of female leaders within the farming industry. From conversations I’ve had to date, I have noticed a clear tendency to downplay their roles.

I’m a keen advocate of voices. For women to see themselves as farmers or leaders, they need to literally see themselves as farmers and leaders. To make space and create space for this. That’s not as simple as it sounds.

When it is safe to meet, I will take my interviews from screen to face-to-(covered) face. I will chat with women in different roles within agriculture. Together I am hoping we will look at and challenge attitudes currently held within the industry. For now, here’s to those women that have been leading the way in farming but not speaking about it. In the words of Sarah, those ‘Badass’ women of agriculture.

Footnotes

[1] Figures  from Women Photograph https://www.womenphotograph.com https://theconversation.com/women-were-photography-pioneers-yet-gender-inequality-persists-in-the-industry-today-119056

[2] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america/episodes/sad-ass-songs

[3] https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america/episodes/sad-ass-songs

References

https://theconversation.com/women-were-photography-pioneers-yet-gender-inequality-persists-in-the-industry-today-119056

https://www.gov.scot/publications/women-farming-agriculture-sector/

https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/dolly-partons-america


Planting, Stewardship and Value

How do trees and tree planting fit into a sense of place and stewardship? Shane Finan discusses how art can play a role in this in the second of his CRE guest posts.

Photo credit: Shane Finan

Henry David Thoreau saw trees as essential for healthy places: “A village that has them not will not be found to work well. It has a screw loose, an essential part is missing” (Higgins, 2017 quoting; Thoreau, 1906). Thoreau felt the deep loss of the natural environment, and, from extensive observation, saw how the natural environment forms mutual partnerships.

There has been a recent surge in popularity in the idea of tree-planting to ‘re-green our planet’. Botanist and chemist Diana Beresford Kroeger, one of the early advocates of mass tree planting, has recently changed her argument slightly to emphasise the more urgent need to preserve the ancient forests that we have. This follows similar arguments, such as the backlash against a project to plant one trillion trees. Forty-six scientists put their name to a paper arguing that planting alone will not solve the current climate crisis (Veldman et al., 2019), and that unplanned planting, such as introduction of non-native species, lack of fire controls, etc., could be more detrimental than not planting at all.

A photograph of the cross section of an array of cut cedar, with an orange-brown hue on the timber and concentric rings showing the tree ages
Many people only see the value of the forest in what it provides in timber and fuel.
Photo credit: Shane Finan

A detailed study on rainforest preservation has found that indigenous communities are ideally suited to replanting efforts, and simultaneously finds that deforestation has more negative impact than reforestation has positive (Walker et al., 2020). It concludes that “the outlook for Amazon forests and their continued stewardship by [Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities] is tied to the political and economic future of Brazil” (p. 3023). Indigenous knowledge is shown to hold a value that is beyond quantification or economics: The ecologically conscious practices of the indigenous groups helps the forest to thrive.

Since the beginning of 2020, I have been working with the Kielderhead Wildwood Project in Kielder, Northumberland, in anticipation of an art residency there. The project is a rewilding effort run by Northumberland Wildlife Trust, where members of the community are planting native trees in a large area of north England.

Kielder was described to me by one of the regular volunteer planters as “the remotest place in England”. The village was built to service the local forestry in the 1920s, but over time the forest was mostly cut for its economic value. As a result, the place has lost a large part of its identity. This is something the wildwood project has the potential to restore, and even improve.

Asking local communities to be involved in the creation and maintenance of a forest has benefits. Aside from physically replanting a forest, it creates a sense of responsibility, identity and memory of place that connects the community and that place. Place-attachment is the concept of forming a close cultural, historical or social memory of a place, whereby people value a location and give it an identity that creates a relationship between them and the place. In a recent example from China, the role of place-attachment is seen to be crucial for grass-roots forestry management: “At the policy level, given that place attachment is an important predictor of pro-environmental behaviour towards heritage forests, efforts should be devoted towards the promotion and articulation of the cultural and historical values of heritage forests” (Cheung & Hui, 2018, p. 44).

An image of a corridor of trees that meet above the head, with a person standing facing away from the camera in light winter clothing inside the corridor
The yew cloister in Gormanstown, Ireland, is an example of an artistic and cultural creation of place: The garden was planted in the early 19th Century as a concessionary gift from one of the Preston family, the owners of the estate, who forbade his daughter to become a nun.
Photo credit: Shane Finan

By providing value to place, local residents gain a connection through social, historical and cultural memory. Folk music, stories, sculpture, events, artistic interventions, and the process of engaging people in place are all enablers of cultural association, creating a relationship between people and places. Art groups like Transition and Grizedale Arts promote this sense of place and stewardship by encouraging communities to grow, care for and maintain their places.

Art is valuable in its ability to create connections, and even more so in its creation of a different type of value. Returning to Thoreau, he argued that trees should not be cut unless necessary: “Every tree is better alive than dead…and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it”. This type of value in the life of a tree is a value for the whole forest. Artists create this value by showing the individual as the universal.

Stewardship is about what we value, and why. A steward needs to value each organism, not just the number behind it. The value is not in one trillion trees, or in the 39,000 that the wildwood project hopes to plant, but on the single one that connects the forest together. If one person takes stewardship for that one tree, the forest will survive.


Cheung, L. T., & Hui, D. L. (2018). Influence of residents’ place attachment on heritage forest conservation awareness in a peri-urban area of Guangzhou, China. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 33, 37-45.

Higgins, R. (2017). Thoreau and the Language of Trees: Univ of California Press.

Thoreau, H. D. (1906). Excursions and poems (Vol. 5): Houghton, Mifflin.

Veldman, J. W., Aleman, J. C., Alvarado, S. T., Anderson, T. M., Archibald, S., Bond, W. J., . . . Zaloumis, N. P. (2019). Comment on “The global tree restoration potential”. Science, 366(6463), eaay7976. doi:10.1126/science.aay7976

Walker, W. S., Gorelik, S. R., Baccini, A., Aragon-Osejo, J. L., Josse, C., Meyer, C., . . . Schwartzman, S. (2020). The role of forest conversion, degradation, and disturbance in the carbon dynamics of Amazon indigenous territories and protected areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(6), 3015-3025. doi:10.1073/pnas.1913321117