Rural economies – Secrets to success

Economies in rural regions are a bit like muddy hill slopes – there is a precariousness to them, a constant threat of losing your footing. And in rural regions, the tumbles seem to come with discouraging regularity. The market falls – or the rain doesn’t. The processor closes its doors, or a key local employer moves offshore.

For rural communities, the consequences of these shocks are very real: jobs and incomes are lost, house values fall, businesses close, families move away. Community viability, from the bank to the footy club, may suddenly be at risk. The language of crisis is once again on the front pages, fueling a negative view of the rural economies that are central to our national prosperity.

As someone who studies rural regions, it’s my job to understand why this happens; and more importantly: What can be done about it? Economic shocks happen everywhere; but rural economies and communities tend to be particularly vulnerable. Why is this, and what can communities, businesses and governments do to equip rural places for the future?

Over the next few posts, I’ll suggest some secrets of success for rural economies. Rural economies have four characteristics that can make them precarious and vulnerable to shocks – but these same characteristics can be “flipped” to become strengths and sources of advantage. Let’s explore how rural communities can recognise and mobilise these strengths – proactively, rather than waiting for the next tumble to come.

Next: Secrets of Success, from Problems to Solutions

So what is a “rural” region?

One of the fun things about being an academic is not taking anything for granted. If you use a word, you need to really look at it: unpack it like a box of supplies. What does it really mean? How have different people used it? Is everybody using it the same way – or does it get pressed into service for all sorts of different things?

“Rural” is one of those words that can be used in lots of ways. Some people use it interchangeably with “agriculture”: what is “rural” is agricultural; what is “agricultural” is rural. To me that is a bit like using a spade when you want a hoe: it’s not quite the same thing. A rural region may rely on agriculture, but that doesn’t mean that agriculture is the only thing happening there. And what about regions with forestry, or fishing, or tourism? Are they not rural?

“Rural” is also often used to mean Not Urban. Cities are “urban”; places outside the cities are “rural”. This is a case of defining something as what it is not; a practice that doesn’t tell you a great deal about what it actually is. Further, this definition reinforces a worldview with cities at the centre, where rural places are, by definition, secondary or peripheral. It is worth considering how much of the urban bias in our economy and society is framed by this definition of rural as Not Urban.

To find a more useful definition of “rural”, I recommend the geographers. Geography is a field specialised in the study of physical places and people’s interaction with them. A geographical definition of “rural” looks to population density, or how many people are living in a certain amount of physical space. Rural areas are by definition less densely populated than urban areas. Geographers also consider other aspects of rurality, such as the importance of primary production; dependence on the natural environment; and the tendency for communities to self-organise to create what they need.

For me, the heart of what is “rural” is the closeness of people and the natural environment. Whether chocolate fields, ancient forests, dry plains or wild coastline, rural places define rural communities. The sense of belonging goes beyond streetscapes and town names. Seeing rural people and rural places in dialogue begins to suggest what sustainable Regional Development could look like.

Writing from the ground up

I have lived nearly all of my life in rural communities, on four continents. Every place is different, but what all these places have in common is a certain groundedness, a meeting of words with trees, a reflection of ideas in water, a practical question to be asked of every theory: what is this for? What will it do?

In Australia, where there are trees, we call it the bush. This is where I live, a long way from concrete and streetlights. I live here by choice and by passion, in a stone house on fifteen acres, on the North West Coast of Tasmania.

This blog is for people who care about rural communities and their futures. I’ll share some of my experiences over the last twenty years studying ‘regional and rural development’ as a university researcher and professor, and living and working in rural communities. I’m happy to field topics, respond to questions, and put you in touch with resources where I can.