Places worth caring about

This week I have discussed, in my MSc course Understanding Rural Development, the modernization of Europe’s agriculture and rural areas in the post World War II era. By showing pictures, tables and figures I have tried to demonstrate how drastically the rural landscape, the agrarian structure and the food supply chain have changed in a period of several decades. Multifunctional countrysides were transformed into places for specialized and high-tech forms of food and fibre production, the number of farms decreased by some 80% in 50 years time, the average farm size increased enormously, agricultural employment decreased drastically, an ever increasing part of the agricultural products are processed by the food processing industry and the supermarket has become the dominant outlet for most food products. There are, of course, differences between regions and countries, but this is the prevailing development trend in EU member states that have been subject to the EU’s original Common Agricultural Policy. The agricultural modernization project has been very successful in terms of creating food self sufficiency in Europe at low prices for consumers, but this has also come at a cost. By the 1990s the negative side-effects of modernization became widely acknowledged. When talking about negative side-effects topics as environmental pollution, degradation of biodiversity, declining farmers’ incomes, animal welfare concerns and consumers’ distrust in the modern food system are usually brought to the fore.

Inspired by a humorous and thought-proviking presentation of James Howard Kunstler at the TED 2004 conference (“The tragedy of suburbia” ) as the analogy between suburbian development and agricultural modernization is astonishing, another side-effect came to mind: the loss of a sense of place and a sense of belonging due to the (feeling of) expropriation of local self control (e.g. due to centralized spatial planning) and due to the eradication of many specific and distinctive regional assets (cultural history, landscape, traditional products and processing techniques, etc…). Rural regions that were subject to the agricultural modernization project have de facto become non-places and are thus easily interchangeable. And as a result many rural regions have become, quoting Kunstler, places not worth caring about … and places not worth caring about are places not worth protecting or defending.

Looking at rural development from this point of view sheds an interesting light on its dynamics.It helps to understand the diversity I have encountered with regards to the extent to which farmers, other rural entrepreneurs, citizens and/or local governments are willing to invest time, labour and money in preserving the rural landscape, in producing regional specific goods, in creating synergies between different socio-economic sectors and activities, in branding and marketing the rural region, etc…

In a region like the Frisian Woodlands in the Northern part of the Netherlands – one of the very few regions where a traditional small scale landscape has been preserved – farmers and citizens joined forces in the early 1990s to collectively preserve and protect the traditional landscape and devise strategies to combine landscape preservation with agricultural production within the context of constraining agri-environmental regulations. As the Rural Sociology Group has collaborated with farmers and other stakeholders in the region since the early 1990s we know how much effort and time they have spent in negotiation with the national government to obtain exemption from generic rules and regulations and to develop and implement their own approach to comply with policy objectives. You cannot but care about the place you live and work in if you are willing to go the this extent to protect and preserve your region.

A somewhat opposite example regards to the rural region where I was born and raised: Noord-Beveland in the Southwestern part of the Netherlands.  Its traditional countryside was completely transformed in the late 1960s and early 1970s into a place for modern arable agriculture and large scale tourism and by the late 1970s it had become a place like many other places that were reconstructed as part of the Dutch land reconstruction policy: a non-place to a certain extent. In the mid 1990s, when issues like farm diversification, broadening of the rural economy, spatial integration of agriculture, nature and tourism entered the societal and political discourse about the future of farming and the countryside, I examined (as part of the research for my PhD thesis) the potential for developing a more integrated regional development approach for Noord-Beveland. Many farmers in the region were, at that time, not interested in such an approach and were of the opinion that the region was best served by ongoing agricultural modernization. If this would make the region less appealing to tourists and thus lead to loss of employment and subsequently to loss of services and facilities, so be it. It was, as many farmers said, only a 25 minute drive to the neighbouring region which had a larger town with shops, restaurants, schools, general practitioners, and so on. Needless to say that usually their wives were the ones doing the shopping and taking the children to school, sports and to the general practitioner. One could argue that for the farmers Noord-Beveland was not really a place worth caring about but merely a good location for modern farming (some even mentioned they would just as easy move to another part of the country if they could have a bigger farm over there). I also interviewed other entrepreneurs at that time and some of them clearly indicated that it was of the utmost importance to make the area more attractive to tourists in order to maintain or improve the level of income from and employment in tourism and as result maintain the level of services in the region. Making the region more attractive implied, according to them, amongst others a revitalisation of landscape elements (such as trees on dikes and around farm buildings) and diversification of farming practices (more kinds of crops and re-introduction of sheep and cattle, agro-touristic facilities, regional food products) and to realise this support from farmers was indispensable. Thanks to an intensive collaboration between a few entrepreneurs, committed citizens and visionary female farmers a regional development approach was designed and implemented stepwise. Central to this approach was to partly restore what was lost in the reconstruction of the countryside (e.g. planting trees on dikes), to produce food products that were unique for the region (e.g. a regional beer, made from barley produced in the region and brewed in the region) and to create services and activities aimed at creating interlinkages between tourism and agriculture (e.g. cycling routes along farms combined with information billboards about agricultural products in fields and possibilities to visit farms). In a period of 10 years time a whole range of activities and products have been developed, the landscape has diversified, 85% of the farmers are member of the regional agrarian association for nature preservation and landscape management and, most important, a large group of people living and working in the region are committed to further develop the endogenous potential and distinctive qualities of the region. Noord-Beveland has transformed from a non-place into a place  that many of its inhabitants now find worth caring about.