Bee poop, BBQ corn and a Burundian community in search of farmland: reflections from fieldwork in Australia’s Sunraysia Region

Post by Olivia Dun & Natascha Klocker

It’s been over a year since we started working on the project Exploring culturally diverse perspectives on Australian environments and environmentalism. The project is funded by the Australian Research Council and also includes our colleagues Lesley Head, Gordon Waitt and Heather Goodall. So far this project has prompted us to think about Australian landscapes, agriculture and back/front-yard spaces in new ways. Farmer_Olivia blogOur work on the project primarily centres on the town of Robinvale and the rural city of Mildura within the Sunraysia region. This region spans a corner of north-western Victoria and south-western New South Wales united by the Murray River and the possibility of irrigated agriculture. We were drawn to the Sunraysia because one third of horticulturalists in the region speak a language other than English at home (Missingham et al. 2006). The Sunraysia is also host to diverse horticultural industries including table grapes, dried fruit, citrus, almonds, olives, carrots, avocado and asparagus, accounting for much of the national supply of these crops. Our aim is to explore the contributions that ethnically diverse residents make to farming in this region – through their labour, businesses and growing practices.

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Fieldwork food

Written by Lesley Head, with culinary and photographic contributions by Natascha Klocker, Olivia Dun, Ananth Gopal, Sophie-May Kerr and Lulu.

There are few things more important to successful fieldwork than food. It sustains the bodies and the community of the fieldwork team. It provides points of connection with the broader community. And in our current project on Exploring culturally diverse perspectives on Australian environments, it is an important dimension of the research itself. We are currently in the Sunraysia region of Victoria (around Robinvale and Mildura), where irrigated agriculture provides an abundance of late summer food choices. In the midst of such abundance there are puzzles and challenges – people who don’t have enough to eat, farmers who don’t eat their own produce, and widespread concerns over pesticide use and the changing political economy of Australian food. Here are some moments in our food journey so far. Continue reading

Plunging into the Anthropocene

For geographers, discussion around the Anthropocene provides an interesting recent take on long standing disciplinary debates over issues such as ‘Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth‘, human impacts and human relations to nature. Last year I was struck by the parallels between how people are conceptualising and talking about the Anthropocene, and how the Neolithic or agricultural revolution has been discussed in archaeology over the last few decades.

I am not talking  about the debate over whether the Anthropocene started 8000 or so years ago as a result of methane emissions from rice agriculture, as argued by William Ruddiman, although that is a fascinating and important discussion. Rather it is about how phases or periods of history can become reified in public and scholarly consciousness, to the detriment of considering their spatial and temporal nuances. If we’re not careful we can end up with deterministic and teleological rather than contingent understandings of historical change. Continue reading

Words and weeds in Sweden

Late summer landscape at Vrångö, in Göteborg’s southern archipelago.

I am back in Göteborg (Gothenburg) as Visiting Professor in the Unit for Human and Economic Geography at the University of Gothenburg. Each time I visit Sweden for a prolonged period, I try to do something systematic to improve, or at least regain, my limited Swedish. On this visit I opted for an intensive course. It was hard work; I haven’t thought about subordinate clauses for more than forty years, and learning vocab is much harder for me than it was then. Many people express surprise at this use of my time, since English is the second language of operation of Swedish academic life. All my colleagues here have to publish in English in order to establish an international reputation, and they speak and write English to a very high level. I don’t anticipate that I will ever be able to have an academic conversation in Swedish.

So why would I bother? Continue reading

Daring to simplify: multifunctional landscapes and Twitter

Do we environmental social scientists make things too complicated for ourselves? That was one of the stimulating questions that emerged from the workshop Marie Stenseke and I organised here in Göteborg last week – Enhancing the contribution of the social sciences to sustainability debates: how can we be proactive and practical without compromising on complexity? Klas Sandell from Karlstad University encapsulated the dilemma as ‘daring to simplify’ in the public arena. Natural scientists do it all the time, when announcing the latest discoveries in climate change, cancer research or human evolution. Most people accept that there is a huge amount of complexity and detailed research behind such simplifications. Are social scientists too precious about their expertise in complexity?

Reflecting on the discussion later, and having to report on AUSCCER’s activities for the year, I was reminded that we have made significant steps in 2012. What are Twitter, The Conversation and this blog* if not examples of ‘daring to simplify’ our current thinking and research findings? One great thing about each of these arenas is that they contain the architecture to link to the more detailed work in the background. I at least feel more confident to simplify if I can point the reader to the basis on which I do so. A second advantage is that they are our words (with the concomitant disadvantage that we cannot blame a journalist when things are wrong!). Continue reading

Drought and climate change: more of the same or a new normal?

This post is the fourth in our series on drought, flood and water. In this series we are making connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcasing our research. This week, Lesley Head writes on drought and climate change.

In our book Ingrained. A Human Bio-geography of Wheat, Jenny Atchison, Alison Gates and I discussed wheat farmers’ experience and understanding of drought. Whatever their views on anthropogenic climate change, coping with climatic variability goes with the territory of being a farmer. ‘That’s our job description’, said one, reflecting widespread pride in the capacities of wheat farmers to cope with drought. It’s a job description that comes with a certain amount of pain, as attested by stories of stressed families and sleepless nights over unpaid bills. If living with drought is normal, how different will climate change be? In this post I consider four angles on that question. Continue reading

The productive agency of drought?

This post is the first in our new series on drought, flood and water. Over the coming weeks we will make connections between AUSCCER researchers working on watery themes, and showcase our new books. This week, Lesley Head reflects on drought and wheat, as discussed in Ingrained: a Human Bio-geography of Wheat.

Drought is recent enough in the memory of most Australians for us to feel sympathy with those currently experiencing it in North America. The apocalyptically named ‘Millennium Drought’ affected southeastern Australia in particular for the first decade of this century. In the hemispheric oscillations of wheat supply, one farmer’s misfortune is another’s bumper year; wheat prices for Australian farmers are on the rise as harvest projections plummet in North America.

Drought is often depicted as a catastrophe, in which Australians are locked in battle with a fickle and hostile nature. But there are other ways to think about it. And, as climate change projections consistently indicate that southern Australia – where most of the population and agriculture are – will get drier over coming decades, we need to learn to live with drought in better ways. Continue reading