Troyan-Apriltsi-Ugаrchin, Bulgaria: Navigating the Unknown Potential of Rural Food Systems

 

Nestled in the heart of the Balkans, the Troyan-Apriltsi-Ugаrchin (TAU) region in Bulgaria stands as a pilot for transformative initiatives. Covering Troyan, Apriltsi, and Ugarchin municipalities, this area spans 1,650.2 km² with a population of 33,858. TAU is positioned strategically, just 150 km northeast of Sofia, with a pivotal role in connecting the capital to the Black Sea. 

Transition Focus: Socio-economic and Demographic Shifts

The TAU region faces socio-economic and demographic challenges, with depopulation at its core. The informal economy, job nature, and ethnic segregation contribute to this issue. Despite rich natural resources, the region struggles to capitalize on them for economic and social development.

Living Lab Challenge: Navigating the Unknown Potential of Rural Food Systems 

The primary challenge identified in TAU revolves around understanding the untapped potential of the rural food system to address socio-economic and demographic transitions. Data gaps in the linkages between food production and consumption, as well as the lack of cooperation between local actors, hinder progress. TAU aims to foster rural food systems, bridge gaps between vocational schools and local businesses, and tackle issues like unfair payments and undeclared jobs in the agri-food sector. 

Rationale: Spotlight on Food as a Unifying Force 

Food emerges as a pivotal focus for TAU, transcending differences and offering a lens to examine public and private practices. The lack of policy support in this domain highlights a significant data gap. By concentrating on food systems, the experiment aims to delve into demographic change and social inequalities. 

Policy Relevance: Paving the Way for Rural Food Policy 

TAU lacks a comprehensive rural food policy. The Rustik experiment strives to fill this void by providing knowledge, data, and models for its development. Aligning with regional and local policies, the experiment could address depopulation concerns and promote sustainable economic growth through food-related initiatives. 

Research Questions: Unveiling the Dynamics of Rural Food Systems 

The experiment seeks answers to crucial questions: 

  • How does the rural food system impact local entrepreneurship and depopulation trends? 
  • What role do family gardens play in local economies and socio-economic inequalities? 
  • How do rural food systems interact with urban economies, and which urban economies influence them? 
  • Can the preservation of local food traditions contribute to community resilience and a sense of identity? 
  • What factors make the local food sector attractive to newcomers and tourists, promoting sustainable local economies? 

Emerging Data Needs: Bridging the Knowledge Gap 

The experiment faces a lack of data on various aspects, such as the local population’s access to fresh, seasonal, and local food, cooperation between vocational schools and local agri-food businesses, and the role of family gardens in sustaining local food traditions. To address this, new and existing sources are being explored to create a comprehensive rural food map. 

Data Availability: Sources to Fuel the Experiment 

The experiment relies on a mix of available data sources, including registers of farmers, food processing enterprises, social kitchens, and more. However, limitations arise due to the non-public nature of certain datasets, hindering a granular analysis. 

Challenges and Capacities: Navigating the Road Ahead 

Challenges include limited access to crucial datasets and the absence of registers, such as that of family gardens. However, partners involved possess the necessary competencies to overcome these challenges, with additional capacity available if required. 

As the Rustik experiment unfolds in TAU, it promises not only to uncover the potential of rural food systems but also to pave the way for informed policies that can foster sustainable development, address depopulation concerns, and contribute to the region’s resilience and identity. Stay tuned for updates as TAU embarks on this transformative journey. 

RUSTIK Shines at the European Research Showcase 

RUSTIK

RUSTIK, a pivotal player in the realm of rural sustainability research, made a remarkable appearance at the European Research Showcase, a significant segment of the European Researchers’ Night event held in September 2023. This event was orchestrated under the aegis of the Intersections 2023 UKRI funding project, signifying its importance in the world of research and innovation. 

At the heart of this event was the mission to foster public engagement and facilitate the dissemination of research findings across a spectrum of fields, spanning sustainability, history, virology, and more. One of the voices representing RUSTIK at this gathering was  Petri Kahila, the Director of the Karelian Institute at the University of Eastern Finland. 

During his engaging presentation, he provided valuable insights into the RUSTIK project, particularly its significant role as the leader of Work Package 4: Evidence and Indicators in Practical Strategy & Policy Implementation. In addition to shedding light on the project’s objectives and contributions, Petri Kahila took the opportunity to give attendees a glimpse into a day in the life of a researcher specializing in social sciences. 

As an esteemed expert in a multitude of domains, including regional and local governance, social and territorial cohesion, rural policy, and evaluation results, Mr. Kahila brought forth a wealth of knowledge and experience. His presentation not only underscored the paramount significance of the RUSTIK project but also unraveled the profound intricacies of social science research. This research serves as a linchpin in molding policies and strategies that uplift and enhance the well-being of communities and regions. 

Bryony Goodwin-Hawkins, Senior Research Fellow affiliated with the Countryside and Community Research Institute at the University of Gloucestershire and WP3 leader, took also the stage at the European research showcase, shedding light on the fascinating world of living labs. At the forefront of innovation within RUSTIK project, this endeavor boasts 14 living labs that serve as dynamic ecosystems for the transformation of inventive concepts into tangible solutions. These living labs act as crucibles of experimentation, harnessing the power of emerging data insights to guide and navigate the intricate landscape of rural transitions. Bryony’s presentation highlighted the invaluable role of these living labs in fostering sustainable development and sparking innovation in rural communities.

About the European Research Showcase 

The European Research Showcase is a grand stage where over 60 researchers from diverse fields across Europe take the spotlight. This illuminating event spans two enriching days, from September 29th to 30th, commencing at 9 a.m. and concluding at 9 p.m. CET each day. The rich tapestry of content generated during the event finds its home on various social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. 

Audiences are not passive spectators, but participants are encouraged to engage by watching the showcase, posing questions, and immersing themselves in the content. The ultimate goal is to accentuate the international and intersectional nature of research and emphasize its far-reaching impact on multifarious aspects of society, ranging from societal and policy issues to health and economics. At the helm of this initiative stands the Intersections project, steadfast in its mission to forge a platform where researchers and the public can unite in an enlightening exploration of the world of research. 

RUSTIK Colleagues presenting at RSA Annual Conference in Ljubljana

The Regional Studies Association’s Annual Conference is just around the corner, and we are excited to announce the participation of several esteemed colleagues from the RUSTIK project. The conference, organized in collaboration with the School of Economics and Business, the University of Ljubljana, and the Slovenian Ministry of Cohesion and Regional Development, will provide a platform for knowledge exchange and discussion on a wide range of topics related to regional and urban development, policy, and research.

The RSA Annual Conference in Ljubljana promises to be a stimulating event, and our RUSTIK colleagues will be actively contributing to the knowledge exchange. The following partners will be actively participating in the conference:

In this article, we will highlight the presentations by our RUSTIK partners and their contributions to the conference.
  • “Entrepreneurial Ecosystems and Challenge-oriented Regional Innovation: A Research and Policy Agenda for European Startup Villages”
    • Date: Thursday, June 15 | Time: 2:00 PM – 3:30 PM CEST

Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins, along with Fabrizio Guzzo, Fernando Merida Martin, and Simone Sasso, will present a paper that focuses on entrepreneurial ecosystems and challenge-oriented regional innovation. Based on their work with the JRC for the Startup Village Forum, the presentation will shed light on the EU’s Long-term Vision for Rural Areas and discuss a research and policy agenda for European startup villages.

  • “Conceptualising Functional Rural Areas: Policy Directions and Research Foundations” 
    • Date: Friday, June 16 | Time: 2:50 PM – 4:20 PM CEST

Simone Sterly, Project Coordinator, and Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins, Living Labs Coordinator will be presenting a compelling paper in this session. The paper, titled “Exploring Functional Rural Areas: New Pathways for Multifunctional Rural Regions,” and prepared together with the consortium members Franco Mantino, Ilona Rac, and Aimee Morse, delves into the conceptualization of Functional Rural Areas which is directly based on the work developed by the RUSTIK Consortium on rural functionalities

This research, rooted in the RUSTIK Consortium’s work, offers valuable insights into policy directions and research foundations in this emerging field. We look forward to their presentation at the RSA Annual Conference and the stimulating discussions it will generate among scholars, policymakers, and researchers interested in the future of rural-urban dynamics and regional development.

  • “Accommodation and Housing of Asylum Seekers and Recognised Refugees in Rural Areas – Two Cases from Rural Austria”
    • Date: Friday, June 16 | Time: 2:50 PM – 4:20 PM CEST

Ingrid Machold will present a paper that examines the accommodation and housing of asylum seekers and recognized refugees in rural areas, focusing on two cases from rural Austria. While this paper is not directly related to the RUSTIK project, it highlights the importance of supporting our colleagues and their valuable research.

  • JRC SMARTER Conference Stream Policy Dialogue Session: “Making Policy Work for Future Generations – Sustainability Transitions as a Long-term Recovery” –
    • Date: Friday, June 16 | Time: 4:50 PM – 6:30 PM CEST

Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins will be participating in the JRC SMARTER conference stream policy dialogue session, where she will interview Slovenian MEP Frank Bogovic. Additionally, she will contribute to a panel discussion with Lars Coenen and Peter Benczur. The session aims to explore sustainability transitions as a long-term recovery strategy.

Don’t miss out on the chance to be part of this enlightening conference!, the RSA Annual Conference is a remarkable platform for sharing knowledge and fostering collaboration in the field of regional studies. Our RUSTIK colleagues’ presentations highlight crucial areas such as entrepreneurial ecosystems, functional rural areas, and refugee accommodation in rural settings. Their contributions will undoubtedly enrich the conference and inspire fruitful discussions among attendees. We wish them all the best for their presentations and look forward to the valuable insights they will bring back to our RUSTIK community.