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Resilience of the Horticultural Community: Engaged Researchers Promoting Productivity and Profitability

Phil Brown and Talitha Best

Abstract: Brown and Best analyse an agricultural research case study to highlight the interdependence of environmental, economic and social capitals and the roles each play in building sustainability and community resilience. Agricultural industries play a critical role as economic drivers of resilience in regional communities but profitability and productivity are influenced by a number of factors, including natural disasters. In this chapter, long-term industry production data, profitability trends, and grower perceptions of factors driving production and profit trends are analysed for the Bundaberg region in regional Queensland. Awareness in the agricultural industry of the constraints and drivers of productivity and profitability were found to contribute to the development of grower strategies for their own businesses, and therefore contribute to economic sustainability and community resilience.

Madsen, Wendy, Lynette Costigan, and Sarah McNicol, eds. Community Resilience, Universities and Engaged Research for Today’s World. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137481054.0012.

Introduction

Agriculture significantly contributes to the economic and social resilience of communities in regional Australia. It also provides an informative way of understanding the interdependence of environmental, economic and social capitals and the roles each play in building sustainability and community resilience. This chapter examines this interplay by considering the agricultural industry within the Bundaberg region. First it provides an overview of the framework used to understand community resilience within this context before exploring each of the capitals in more detail as they play out within the agricultural industries of this region. Finally, we put forward that engaged research approaches allow researchers to work with farmers as partners in the co-production of knowledge that contributes to building each of these capitals and thus the sustainability and resilience of communities and regions.

Background

Agricultural industries represent a large percentage of the economy in many rural and regional communities. It is therefore not surprising that the major focus of agricultural research is on the practices that may maintain or improve the productivity and profitability of agricultural systems. Globally, the emphasis of agricultural research on technological approaches to improving productivity is well documented (Pardey, Beintema, Dehmer, & Wood, 2006). In a direct sense, agricultural research contributes to the wellbeing of rural and regional communities through the economic benefits derived from increased productivity. However, the contribution of these research activities to community resilience, and particularly the social systems contributing to resilience within the farming community, is rarely considered. Such investigation is long overdue. The stereotypical farmer is frequently considered to be resilient, stoically coping with physically demanding work and the vagaries of fluctuating weather conditions and markets. Yet, modern farming is a high stress industry with high rates of injury and suicide (Fragar, Henderson, Morton, & Pollock, 2008). Indeed, the agricultural industry accounts for the highest rate of suicide across occupational groups in Queensland (Anderson, Hawgood, Klieve, Kolves, & De Leo, 2010). Factors such as long work hours, social isolation, an aging population and climatic variability may contribute to this rate (Anderson et al., 2010), while other authors have identified that common personality traits found among farmers may protect against psychological distress, many of which reinforce the farming stereotype (Judd et al., 2006). When considered at the community level, the wellbeing of individuals can be enhanced through involvement in social networks. Social capital, or the benefits of investing in social relationships, contributes heavily to farming community resilience (Uskul, Kitayama, & Nisbett, 2008). Agricultural extension officers have been shown to be valuable facilitators of social relationships in agricultural communities (Takemura, Uchida, & Yoshikawa, 2014).

Financial and weather related pressures are significant stressors for farmers (Fragar et al., 2008). Agricultural research to improve productivity often targets these pressures, so the outputs of research programs are likely to have both economic and social impacts in farming communities. Assessment of economic benefits of agricultural research is common, but social outcomes from research focussed on technological approaches to improving productivity are rarely considered. This chapter utilises the conceptualisation of community resilience as outlined by Wilson (2012) to examine farmers’ perceptions of changes that have occurred in a horticultural production system over a 15-year period, exploring the impact of agricultural research on the resilience of the industry as a community. Wilson (2012) proposed community resilience is best understood as the result of the interplay between economic, environmental and social capitals, with the most resilient communities being those that have found a way to balance all three. Thus, this chapter is structured around these three capital domains. Through a series of conversations with individuals and groups of farmers interacting with agricultural researchers during field days, workshops and farm visits, the role of researchers in horticultural community resilience was explored. Major fluctuations in production were identified for key horticultural crops, and the causes plus industry responses were explored with the farmers.

 
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