Social capital: resilience in the horticultural production community

As noted in the introductory chapter of this book (Madsen & Chesham, 2015), the term ‘community resilience’ has been conceptualised in many different forms. The definition of community resilience as being the capacity of a community to ‘absorb disturbances and reorganise while undergoing change to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks’ (Wilson, 2012, p. 15) is applicable to this study of horticultural industry resilience. Disturbances in the form of natural hazards such as adverse weather events and disease, and socioeconomic hazards such as low prices due to marketplace competition, have been experienced by the Bundaberg region horticultural community. Production statistics demonstrate the capacity of the industry to respond to these disturbances, and this conclusion is backed up by the positive mindset of the majority of farmers.

Yeah, we’ve had our share of knocks but we always seem to bounce back.

While such attitudes reflect the stereotypical stoic farmer, they also play an important role in sustaining the social capital within this community.

As Wilson (2012) has noted, social memory and social narratives help to bind communities together and provide them with the means of sharing their experiences. The stories farmers tell each other about how they overcame adversity in the past can be helpful in providing the drive to overcome current and future adversities, particularly if those stories are infused with themes of solidarity and collaboration (Madsen & O’Mullan, 2012). Farming has always been a difficult industry and it is likely future challenges will also present difficulties. Indeed, large disturbances are predicted to become more frequent in agricultural systems as global climate change, extreme weather events, input price volatility including rapidly rising energy costs, and internationalisation of agrifood markets induce productivity and economic changes for localised production regions (Berardi, Green, & Hammond, 2011). Ensuring the horticulture industry has strong social capital is just as essential in being able to respond to these future challenges as ensuring the economic viability of the markets. Part of this social capital relates to learning from past events and capturing this learning within the social memory of the industry.

Social memory consists not only of the stories or narratives farmers tell each other, but also of how institutional policies and procedures are formed and maintained. Within the Bundaberg region a number of institutions exist, including the Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers Cooperative as well as the Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Together, these organisations and institutions put in place policies and procedures that are developed in response to the adversities and external drivers of change as well as internal reflections on the industry. They provide the mechanisms by which independent growers can cooperate and work together as a whole in order to decrease their vulnerabilities both individually and collectively. Horticultural researchers play a key role in capturing the learning from past adversities and in helping to formulate practices that allow farmers to work together to overcome environmental difficulties to ensure economic returns.

While modern agricultural systems are grounded in an economic paradigm, with much of the support base for the systems aimed at ensuring financial stability within the industry, these systems form an integral part of the broader social memory of the industry. Policies, regulations and other external factors aimed at buffering against economic fluctuations were often not viewed favourably by farmers despite the impacts of these factors on market stability. The resilience of agricultural systems underpinned heavily by government policy and regulations has been questioned previously (King, 2008). The ‘top down’ approach inherent in this structure is not conducive to the collective problem solving, learning and capacity building through participation and reflection activities that have been identified in this book as conducive to community resilience. While much of the agricultural research identified by the farmers in this study addressed natural hazard risks and not market prices, the research was often identified by growers as important in the local industries’ capacity to respond to economic challenges. Indeed, it is this local focus that is often missing from the governmental regulations that do not recognise the potential contained in supporting local initiatives. Researchers engaged with industry clearly have impacts on community resilience beyond the technological innovations that their research generates.

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