………………………………………………………………………………… This blog follows our recent book of the same title published by Routledge. Rurality is interpreted in many ways depending on individual encounters with rural space. Debate should not be restricted to the pages of the book so please join in here.

Tom Heap visits the University of Lincoln

Tom Heap with the School of Geography

Tom Heap, right, with the School of Geography

As part of a full day of activities with the Schools of Geography, Journalism and Life Sciences, Tom Heap spoke to us about some of the challenges of balancing rural development and the environment.  A key message was that we must be careful not to view rural affairs solely through the prism of the environment because rural places are homes and workplaces too.

From this basis, Tom shared a number of interesting ideas about how to reconcile the needs of food production with the needs to safeguard the environment.  He took an optimistic view with respect to the role that human innovation can continue to play in increasing food production and overcoming threats associated with diminishing natural resources. However, this was tempered by the fact that food consumption continues to “deify the natural” and view scientific or non-conventional farming practices with suspicion. One particular example was a salmon farmer in Scotland who is rearing salmon in tanks on the land.  Arguably this is better for the environment as it avoids polluting the seas and it also allows the producer to have complete control over inputs and outputs to the system, but, in a consumer world, this is only feasible if people will be happy to eat it.

Therefore, perhaps we need to think about whether there are ways to influence public opinion and demonstrate the safety and environmental benefits of scientific innovations or whether the agricultural sector should be looking for innovations that are more aligned to conventional views of “natural” food production.


What is Rural?

With thanks to Lincoln Minster School, The Kings School, Grantham, and Christ’s Hospital School for coming into University today.  Here are the results of your experiment…

Overall, there were some strong areas of agreement with the Mill Pond and its wild flowers being overwhelmingly viewed as the most natural (24), the village shop being the most traditional (14), the Ribblehead viaduct considered the most isolated (14). For the other quotations, the scores were closer with the timber-frame house (9) and the windfarm (8) being most “Unwelcoming”; the Land-rover in the street being the most desirable place to live (9) and “the most rural” being the cows at the edge of the river (10).

So what do we learn from this? There is no clear agreement on what makes rural places special, attractive or unappealing. However, some common trends emerge including the fact that people would like to live in places with evidence of community rather than in more isolated rural areas where nature dominates. Also, it is interesting that a Lincolnshire audience associates cows rather than combine harvesters with “rural” – and six people found the combine harvester image to be “unwelcoming”.

Only one person considered a windfarm as “natural” – perhaps echoing the public debate windfarms being undesirable in the landscape whilst also providing a renewable source of energy. The most “natural” image of the mill-pond was created as the result of the construction of a water-mill across the River Nene which might make us think more about the ways in which we can capture energy and resources from the landscape in ways that leave a positive legacy.

Picture I’d Like to Live here This is Traditional This is What I think of when I hear “rural” This looks most natural This looks isolated This looks unwelcoming
Farmyard & Church 5 1 6 0 2 0
Mill Pond 0 0 1 24 1 0
Churchyard 0 7 1 0 2 4
Cows in river 1 0 10 4 1 0
Maypole 6 3 3 1 0 0
Wind farm 2 0 2 1 7 8
Harvesting 0 1 4 1 4 6
Timber-frame house 1 0 0 0 1 9
Viaduct 2 1 3 0 14 2
Village Shop 6 14 2 0 0 0
Land-Rover in street 9 4 0 0 0 2

Whilst there really is too little data to draw firm conclusions, I hope that the exercise opens up some important questions about how we all perceive the places around us. In particular, I hope it will encourage us to be more aware of the fact that different parts of society will attach different values on the landscape, on nature, on community assets and on cultural traditions connected to places.


Rural Landscape Businesses

Hanne Bat Finke, from the Danish Centre for Rural Research at the University of Southern Denmark, Hanne talkgave a seminar to the University of Lincoln Rural Research Group as part of her visit this week.  Reporting the findings from her PhD, she gave a number of examples of new rural enterprises on the Danish island of Funen which used and enhanced local landscapes in a number of ways.  As rural places continue to change, this offers welcome optimism for the future of rural economies based around small-scale entrepreneurship and innovative enterprises.

SALFAR kicks off in Lincoln

SALFAR interreg logo

The University of Lincoln hosted delegates from 7 countries to launch a new European Union Interreg funded project to investigate potential developments in saline and salt-tolerant agricultural systems. The project, SalFar, sees Lincoln International Business School, Lincoln Institute for Agri-food Technology (LIAT) and the University’s new School of Geography teaming up to provide economic and market analyses as well as to run a series of crop trials to explore new opportunities in coastal agricultural production.

The consortium will look at new ways of understanding flood risk and defence, and explore opportunities to grow new types of salt-tolerant crops to help farmers adapt to possible future climate change scenarios.

The SalFar project builds on preliminary research from the University of Lincoln, which combined novel satellite imagery analysis, economic modelling, and field sampling to place a value on the agricultural land in flood risk areas. Dr Iain Gould (LIAT) and Martin Collinson presented these findings to the international team.

During the conference, discussions centred around the likely demand for different types of crops (from growers as well as consumers), the potential to create niche brands and the potential for new entrepreneurs to capitalise on emerging economic opportunities.

Delegates also visited farmland around The Wash, which gave our European partners an insight into the landscape and agricultural systems in the south of the county.

Dr Iain Gould presents  preliminary research from a University funded study here in Lincolnshire

Dr Iain Gould presents preliminary research from a University funded study here in Lincolnshire

The project addresses one of the future challenges of agriculture in the North Sea Region – how we can adapt to an increased deposition of salts in our soils (salinization), a process caused by seawater flooding, rising saline groundwater and the use of brackish water for irrigation.

More details of the project and its progress can be followed here: http://northsearegion.eu/salfar/.

Commuting – potential rural growth strategy?

Based on a paper soon to be published in Regional Studies (Bosworth & Venhorst), my latest presentation for the Lincolnshire branch of the CPRE was potentially a little controversial.  Our paper considered the potential gains for a rural region which houses a lot of commuters who work in a neighbouring urban region experiencing economic growth.  On the downside, higher incomes and higher demand for housing from commuters push up house prices and potentially exclude local rural workers from the housing market.  Also, a large number of commuters also carry out a lot of their retail and leisure activities outside of their home community.

CPRE2017Rather than “blaming” commuters and demographic trends, I argued that perhaps rural entrepreneurs and rural policy makers need to think more about how they can capture more of commuters’ expenditure, expertise and networks to the benefit of their home community/region.

Commuting (both in- and out-commuting) is positively associated with economic competitiveness at the district level.  Rural entrepreneurs need to better understand the consumer demands of commuters and open their businesses at suitable hours, provide the right leisure options and distinguish themselves from the wider competition to which increased commuting exposes them.

Rural areas could also benefit more if commuters were able to spend more time working from home or in local serviced office space.  Not only could this be the first step towards the creation of a new business locally but if a commuter village could have a professional lawyer, accountant and graphic designer working in a shared office just 1 day a week, imagine how quickly the coffee shop in that building would become the place to go for informal advice?  Currently, I suspect many actors in rural economies are totally unaware of the range of high level skills on their doorsteps.

A commuter-oriented economic development strategy might appear to lack ambition – relying on other economic centres to be the engines of growth. But I suggest it takes a braver, but a wiser policy-maker to look at what his or her region does well, how it links into other regions and where it can best capture value. If that value is best captured by “exporting” skilled workers on a daily basis but then providing the facilities that they demand for recreation, home-improvements, retail etc… surely that can generate a multiplier effect not dissimilar to traditional theories of exporting?