Heartland Strong discusses the future of New Zealand’s rural communities and how the strength of social ties and development of digital technologies, the innovations in rural entrepreneurship and the functioning informal economy suggest that many rural communities are in good health.

About the podcast

There is no getting away from the challenges to the rural sector. But rural communities have shown themselves to be resilient over many years, and that is likely to continue. Most importantly, people in rural communities, in townships and on farms, have options.

This podcast comes after the book Heartland Strong which is based on years of research showing how and providing useful insights into, the ongoing process of change in rural communities and the resources on which they draw to support their resilience. It offers a positive message and blueprints for progress.

Episode One: Why Write a Book?

With research that is the first of it’s kind to take a multidisciplinary approach, it was important to the authors that not only was the research to be ‘participatory and integrative’ but more relevant for people who are not going to be read in scientific journal papers.

In this episode, host Denise Bewsell, speaks to Dr Margaret Brown, Senior Social Scientist at AgResearch and leader of the Resilient Rural Communities Program as well as Liz Wedderburn, Assistant Research Director at AgResearch responsible for International Collaborations, Adoption and Practice Change.

They discuss :

  • Why take this approach to research and their methodology
  • Their definition of rural resilience and the ability to bounce ‘forward’
  • The importance to reach more people with science

Watch and listen here:


LIZ People have been finding this book very interesting from an international perspective, again, from the lessons learned, particularly how the research was undertaken because it's been participatory, integrative, and that's really appealed to many people and internationally.

DENISE Well, welcome along to Heartland Strong, a podcast looking at resilience across New Zealand. Our focus on the Heartland Strong book, a book about how rural New Zealand can change and thrive. And today we have Margaret Brown and Liz Wedderburn joining us for this very first episode about why they wrote a book on resilience, of all things. So Margaret is a social scientist at AgResearch and as leader of the Resilient Rural Communities Program and co-editor of the Heartland Strong Book. And Liz is a principal scientist at AgResearch and was involved right at the very early stages, the thinking of this program. So, Liz, can you give us some background, please?

LIZ Yeah. Hi, Denise. Thank you. I actually I looked up some documents to get a dateline. And 2008 was the first program we put up to what was then, I think, the foundation of research, science and technology around rural futures. And we were it was great. We got funded. The reason we put the program together was that there were so many challenges coming up for rural New Zealand. There was the water challenges, the climate challenges, the volatility in prices, succession.

LIZ There was so many different things which are factually not different today, I have to say the same challenges a year in a different form. But I guess 11 years ago, people were not thinking so much that they were thinking more about those as individuals. So you saw a really good programme on climate change. You could see very good programs of water, but no real cohesive systemic thinking and nothing really. Where people were kind of central.

LIZ And so the program was to pull together different approaches, to look at the challenges and to see how they operated. And simultaneously at the key point was really participation and really being in those communities and giving them some tools and practices that would allow them to come together and explore what the future might look like.

LIZ So we had learning platforms and we heard simulation models and all sorts of things and our ideas. And yes, they came to fruition over time, which was lovely.

DENISE This is awesome. Margaret, I'm going to draw you in because you got involved in the research. When did you get involved?

MARGARET Just thinking. I didn't realize it was that long ago that we actually, you know, you started this program and my memory isn't that great.

MARGARET But I think I came in at about two years, approximately two years into the program, into the research program.

MARGARET So I wasn't part of the thinking that was really over to Liz and her team thinking about what was the purpose of the research, what exactly, you know, what were the research goals and research questions. And when I came in really once they had set up the great lead and direction and I took over, because Liz had to move on to other programs.

DENISE Liz, tell us a bit about the scope and the aims at that.

LIZ Well, that the real scope was to look at these drivers simultaneously and see what it meant for rural communities, but also for individual farmers. So we were interested in scale, we were interested in, “well, so what does this mean for all of these things happening on the farm? How can I explore what my farm system might look like? Then there was actually.

LIZ But if you take that another scale, we've got to involve a lot of other people because a lot of these issues are catchments issues. So what? So how will we bring those catchment people in and then you take it at another scale? And actually, this is all about local development and how will local development look in the future?

LIZ There was a lot of discussions, particularly say that in Southland about very different forms of products such as puny roses, wasabi dairy. But what direction would take and what would that mean? What would be the flow-on impacts?

LIZ So that was from a community perspective and from a research perspective, it was really to bring together what we know call integrative teams where you have biologists working with economists, working with modelers, working with social scientists.

LIZ And I think that that was the first program.

LIZ Margaret, maybe you can help there, but we thought we did bring together these this integrative team. And so part of the research was monitoring. How do you work with these mixed teams? You know, people are always very good in their own particular area.

LIZ But where were the people that were going to be the systems, people who were able to cross those bones? And the other important thing, I think, was the inclusion of the rural communities in the research. So in helping scoping the research and being part of the research. So particularly in Southland, we had Venture Southland coming in and being very part of sorts. And our platforms that we set up were very much inclusive, having not just researchers talking amongst themselves, which we're very good at, but really get a much, much wider participation so that everybody could explore the future together.

DENISE Yeah, and it's exploring that future together, which I think is the real key to the work. And what was exciting about it. So, Margaret, tell us, how did the team go working together with this cross disciplinary cross discipline, as Liz Liz talked about? How did it go?

MARGARET Well, it's an interesting thing to see it. We were one of the first of particularly in a research of taking this approach to research, the multidisciplinary approach. Once it was multi organization and also international.

MARGARET So it was my dubious honor that it to five days and left me to round up all these wooly parts were from that time, from all these different disciplines who all spoke a different language.

MARGARET And then we added in the very important component of rural communities who speak a different language and I can say it because I am a farmer and live in a rural community. It was an interesting project in respect of bringing all these different people together. We worked together in five to 18 because it was new in the first time the group that we had to give a head donor. We built in a monitoring and evaluation program around how to work is friends to retrain. And we actually realized one of the big things I think we all learned is that it takes a lot more time. And we had to rethink some of our time schedules and milestones as we appreciate more with rural community. It all takes a lot more time. That's not a bad thing. It's just something we had to be aware of and make more accountable if we were truly going to work, if the discipline retaining and having our empathy into a community member.

DENISE Yeah. Fair enough. I'm certain the main research achievements and the impact of the research. Margaret, can you tell us about that?

MARGARET Yes. Well, I mean, there are, I think, a lot of achievements and I'm not thinking about going back and thinking about this. We were writing them all down on their being wounded and buried. If was the purpose that we wanted to see.

MARGARET Let's see if we wanted to develop tools and processes that could be used by the. Communities by policy makers, by researchers, and actually we achieved all of it. And I think the impacts of many and go back to the scales that was started talking about the research was directed at the farm scale. And we developed and worked with the one that I really wanted to mention was a Maori group. Nothing. We're up over on the East Coast and we were looking at how they could build resilience into farm systems that have fragmented lane. And we can see them actually using what we how we work together, the processes we worked through with them in particular, we can see them using it and the results that lie ahead. The ways of changing slowly, the farming systems to build resilience and to relay injuries at the community level. There are a number of impacts we've had because one of the main products tools we've produced out of this program is what we call the resilience framework. And that was really a tool that developed because we found when we looked at the literature around resilience. There is a lot of literature out there and a lot of it deals with single items or single dimensions of resilience. And we thought we think in farm systems, a rural community of farm all or around farm systems or systems and not single items. And we want to integrate them. And the dimensions on talking about resilience, dimensions, social, cultural, environmental, economic. And we added one more that the literature doesn't really make a lot of organized journal. And by that, we're talking about what organizations does a rural community need to be resilient? It might be anything from schools, churches, the trucking firm, exception like that. So we build and develop this resilience framework. And that's been that was for our own really in the beginning. It was all about us thinking what our research might we need to do so that we can come to school, these five two functions. But then the framework took to talk leads and it's being used. We use that with rural communities and develop that. And it's now being used by other rural communities.

MARGARET It's been used by groups like regional councils to frame up their thinking around resilience in their own place. And it's been used by schools. We have a couple of schools that are using it, a senior geography class. It's been used in the universities. It's been used in several of our ministries out. Unfortunately, the ministry for Primary Industry is using it. So this framework is a tool. The framing up in thinking about resilience and I must point out to is what we mean by resilience because there are several definitions. But the two main ones that come out of the literature around rural resilience.

MARGARET One is the ability to bounce forwards and that just win some there is some outside force perhaps or some change some driver that's impacting it could be anything from climate change to through to regulation. And it's the ability to change, to take stock of the situation, the time and move, to learn and change and move forwards to a new state as opposed to the resilience definition, which is bounce backwards, is to bounce back to where you were before. And our program is not and was never about events like earthquakes, etc. It was more about the slow burn changes which come about with change regulation and slowly things change. You lose the school in your rural community, except. All right.

MARGARET And just the other group that are using this year, I think are impacted by our group and this is our work amongst the policy makers. It's now evident because we are giving out some of our people who have been involved in the research. We're being asked to help inform particular policy decisions and regulations within the government and within. For example, beef and lamb. So the other thing I think is an important impact from your work is that all these tools and processes that we develop and modified from from other groups during the course of the 10 or so years are now being used in rural proofing. And rural proofing is the putting a rural lens over policy decisions.

MARGARET And I'll just. I would think the government's rural proofing initiative failed because last year. Very timely, Minister Damien O'Connor announced that that policy decisions had to be rural proofed before they were put into action.

MARGARET And it was they had to look at what are the likely impacts, consequences or unintended consequences of these decisions.

MARGARET And we've been able to put to do their approval box for rural proofing and we have been shearing with MPI in. Amy Fee, even the Ministry of Health asked us to come and talk and share with them how I could use these tools in the rural proofing initiatives.

DENISE Wow. It's really cool. And is it the ultimate, isn't it?
That research is actually used. I mean, because we do research to find out and to learn and then to hear how widely what you've done and the framework that you've developed and the tools you've developed and now being used. It's amazing.

DENISE And so I come back to. Well, then if it's it's out there and it's being used, why write a book? Because it seems like it's 0 happening. So maybe I'll start with you. Why a book?

LIZ Well, I think a book is a very good mechanism for reaching known researchers.

LIZ So I have one of the key challenges, I guess that I have just one point I gave to the group was, yeah, well, this is all great, but so what? How will people reach it? How will they knew about it? How will they? They won't go to journals. They won't read us. So they start pulling together. The book was around the popularizing of the lessons. And I think that the the response to the book has been overwhelmingly positive. And they're flying out the door, people wanting more of them. So I think, you know, again, it's about science research, reaching out and making its information more useful and more relevant for people who are not going to be read in scientific journal papers.

LIZ So for for me, I think the important thing is for rural communities to feel really empowered.

LIZ So I think people living in rural communities, people drinking coffee and Parnell or Ponsonby in Auckland really need to read it because this is heartland and this is where a lot of their economy is coming from. So, hey, let's let's hear a little bit of positive news for rural communities. You know, we're hearing a lot of negative stuff and we're know they are they're very central to New Zealand's success. So I'm thinking urban people, I think it's superb for your education, those schools, universities, and they also think particularly for policy, because as Margaret said, one of the things that was really important was looking at what are the unintended consequences of all of these things coming together and how do you prepare for that? So I think in preparation for the future, anyone who's interested in that. It was this would be a good, good book to pick up.

MARGARET Look, it really is anyone who is interested in agriculture in the rural communities. I think there's something in there for everyone because we are we. We wrote particularly for the audiences of the north and South turn.

MARGARET But really importantly, we rose up with a number of community members who vote. Some of them were involved in the podcast as well. And so I think it's really got a very wide readership right through from those doing it on the phone, doing things, the rural communities.

MARGARET I like levels of the flow of people in the urban as well, understanding what's happening in the country more right through the local government and through to our policy makers.

LIZ Something on the periphery, everyone, I think. Sorry. Just to add. I've I've promoted I do a lot of work overseas. And again, it's fine off the shelves overseas.

LIZ People are really interested in how New Zealand's playing with a lots of the challenges in the rural because, again, the issues that they're facing, New Zealand's rural communities are global.

LIZ So people have been finding this book very interesting from an international perspective, again, from the lessons and particularly how how the.

LIZ The research was undertaken because it's been participatory and integrative, and that's really appealed to many people in the internationally.

DENISE Heartland Strong is the book. It's a book about how rural New Zealand can change and thrive. You've heard it here that there's lots in it. There's lots of relevance to anything from a person who is sitting in panel drinking a coffee through to a community out in the heartland of New Zealand. I'm facing lots of challenges and wanting to be resilient and be able to bounce forward. I really like that bouncing forward. So thanks for your time. Get a hold of the book. And stay tuned for further podcast episodes because we're going to be exploring what's in the book. Thanks for your time. 

Episode Two: A Resilience Framework

Farmers live complexity every day and researchers struggle to find a simple framework that can cover all of the aspects that affect rural resilience. The ‘Heartland Strong’ research team needed to build a world-leading interdisciplinary framework to bring social and physical science together.

In this episode, host Denise Bewsell, speaks to Bill Kaye-Blake, who is an agricultural economist and is also one of the co-authors of the book ‘Heartland Strong’ about why existing research frameworks could not have applied to this project.

Bill explains the importance of government policy ‘rural proofing’ it’s thinking to avoid unintended consequences.

Watch and listen here:

Episode Three: Measuring Resilience

The definition for measuring resilience was the ability to bounce forward and adapt to change or to bounce back and return to what was before, so to measure this definition took some complexity.

In this episode, host Denise Bewsell, speaks to Bill Kaye-Blake, agricultural economist and AgResearch social scientist, Penny Payne, who are both co-editors for the book ‘Heartland Strong’ about how they blended quantitative and qualitative research methods to find some interesting outcomes. 

Watch and listen here:

Episode Four: Māori Land Use

Following New Zealand’s treaty settlement of Māori land in recent times, there is a challenge to advance not only the economic, cultural, social and environmental outcomes when the land is so fragmented by geographic isolation and in often inaccessible landscapes.

With research that is the first of it’s kind to take a multidisciplinary approach, it was important to the authors of ‘Heartland Strong’ that not only was the research to be ‘participatory and integrative’ but more relevant for people who are not going to be read in scientific journal papers.

In this episode, host Denise Bewsell, speaks to Alec McKay, Principal Scientist at AgResearch and Bonny Hatami, Project Manager for the Ngāti Pāhauwera Development Trust.

They discuss :

  • How to unlock the potential of Maori land ownership across pastoral, indigenous vegetation and forestry when 1.5 million hectares of Maori Land is in 160,000 parcels is of less than 10ha in size
  • The work of AgResearch and the Maori land trust working together to reconnect the individual land parcels to reconfigure under one farm management operation. 

Watch and listen here:

Episode Five: Resilience in Southland

If you want to pick a region that has seen a massive change in land use over the last 25 years and to research the resilience in how a change in farm systems has an effect on rural communities, there’s no better than Southland.

With Southland being an intergenerational farming region, as well as the new farmers who'd come in as part of the dairy conversion, they had a richness in their diversity of people who were viewing things from the tourism sector, mayoralty office to the farming sector.

In this episode, host Denise Bewsell speaks to Robyn Dynes, Science Impact Leader at AgResearch and Ronaldo Vibart, Scientist (Biophysical) at AgResearch.

They discuss :

  • How they used multi-agency modelling using a mix of different farm systems and how people bring a range of values to their economic decision making.
  • A major land-use change has a latency to the decision making and has a measured approach as some farmers will be more risk-averse than others.
  • The challenges that our farming businesses are facing now with multiple drivers, not just freshwater, are really challenging the industries that support the farmers, the rural professionals that support them, as well as the farmers. 

Watch and listen here:

Episode Six: Integrated Farm Plans

By implementing traditional Maori knowledge systems and looking at how we can merge them into Western science, we can gain a new understanding and a new way of addressing some of the science challenges with integrated farm plans which are a lot more of a holistic approach in the management of the farm as a whole. The farm systems team worked together with Maori Trust, Ngā Uri o te Ngahere, to come up with a really interesting framework for the enhancement of natural resources.

In this episode, host Denise Bewsell, speaks to Estelle Dominati, Senior Scientist at AgResearch and Garry Watson, Chairman Ngā Uri o te Ngahere Trust.

They discuss:

  • How it's about creating a harmony between two knowledge systems, for instance, if planting for riparian plants why not also plant for bioactive compounds or animal health?
  • Integrated plans are about having more than a myopic view of the outcomes and that the methodology needs to view the changes in its entirety. 

Watch and listen here:

Episode Seven: The Future

In the final episode of the Heartland Strong podcast, the co-editors of the research project look to the future of where they would like their findings and tools taken to not only continue to measure the resilience of communities but allow policymakers to consider the wider implications of their isolated policy decisions on how rural communities will strive or struggle to survive.

In this episode, host Denise Bewsell wraps up the series with Dr Margaret Brown and Dr Liz Wedderburn of AgResearch.

They discuss :

  • The importance of policy conversations to have diversity of thinking, rural proofing all policy decisions and to remember the community-centric effect these decisions will have.
  • Wellbeing indicators are just as important as GDP so it’s important policy has flexibility to deal with the volatility facing rural communities. 

Watch and listen here:

For more information

Research Programme
Resilient Rural Communities

The Resilient Rural Communities programme is a multi-disciplinary project linked to the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge. It examines the drivers of rural community resilience and provides research which aims to support the enhancement of this resilience. 

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