This weekend, we (Kayla and Dani) attended Penn State University’s 3rd annual Rural Sociology Conference, themed “Understanding Rural Society and Global Challenges.” As ecologists (Kayla is also an agronomist), sociology is out of our typical field of study, but since we work on agricultural issues, we were hoping to gain some insight on how to integrate the human element into what we do in order to help bridge understanding between us as researchers and the communities that our research is intended to support.
The conference, which spanned two full days, was entirely graduate student run and included a keynote speaker each day. The first speaker was Dr. Margreet van der Burg of Wangeningen University, a university in the Netherlands that works closely with government and the business community to promote healthy living and the environment. Dr. van der Burg discussed the challenges of addressing complexity in the study of rural populations. A large component of her talk was focused on intensified agriculture in Tanzania and Mozambique and the work that she had done there involving women’s changing roles on small farms. On the second day, Dr. Kathy Brasier of Penn State discussed her investigation of the effects of the Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing project on the well-being of local inhabitants in the regions of West Virginia and Pennsylvania affected by the fracking industry.
We spoke to a full room of about thirty people on the first day of the conference. Dani spoke on the potential consequences of sea level rise on farms and other ecosystems along Maryland’s lower eastern shore. Kayla discussed the importance of cover crops in soil health and erosion control and strategies to encourage farmers to adopt their use. We were met with an overwhelmingly welcome reception. Students and professors trained as sociologists said they were immediately able to understand our projects in a social context and as we ran out the clock, we extended our question time to dinner, during which we were able to connect with people from Penn State (including an extension agent who was working with Pennsylvania farmers to understand their perceptions of climate change) and other universities.
Presentation topics spanned across the globe from local Pennsylvania to Uganda, Tanzania, Brazil, and Peru, as examples. Though topics were extremely varied—speakers discussed everything from industrial agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, to creating sustainable farming education programs in Brazil, we noticed several common themes running throughout all. The first was the overarching theme of climate change. Speakers identified this as a major issue to farming systems worldwide. The second was the theme of globalization. Speakers identified the growth of global trade and demand on specialty goods as a major detriment to farming systems around the world.
As the creation of effective solutions to the world’s increasingly complex “wicked problems” will require a cooperative and transdisciplinary approach, we found this unique conference to be a way to hone our ability to convey our message to researchers among a variety of disciplines. We were able to present our work through a different “lens,” which may be a promising strategy for attracting stakeholders to our research in the future.
- by Kayla Griffith and Dani Weissman