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 Living Lab in Austria Spotlighted in the ‘Living Labs in Rural Areas: How To?’ Webinar

Living labs

In the picturesque landscapes of Carinthia, Austria, the Nockregion-Oberkärnten faces a set of challenges that demand innovative solutions for sustainable development. Daria Ernst, representing the Federal Institute of Agricultural Economics, Rural and Mountain Research (BAB), took center stage at the “Living Labs in rural areas: HOW TO? Knowledge Transfer Accelerator” organized by the Granular project and the European Association for Innovation in Local Development (AEIDL). 

The Living Lab Pilot Region, nestled in Carinthia, spans 1,324 km², encompassing 17 municipalities with a population of 52,500. The region grapples with significant issues, including an imbalanced job structure, deficits in job supply, high commuter rates, out-migration of young people and women, and an aging population. 

Daria Ernst adeptly introduced two pivotal topics for the Living Lab challenge, considered and deliberated with the Project Review Panel and the Focus Group, aligning with the regional strategy: 

Initially, they contemplated channelling efforts into the implementation of a Quality of Life (QoL) Index tailored specifically to Nockregion-Oberkärnten. This innovative tool aspired to gauge progress and territorial development, offering nuanced insights into diverse facets of the region’s wellbeing. However, this proposal encountered several critical issues: 

  • Challenge of Comparability: Addressing the intricate task of ensuring the QoL Index’s comparability with other regions. 
  • Living Lab Approach Hurdles: Tackling challenges associated with the applicability of the Living Lab approach. 
  • Data Gaps and Capacity Constraints: Identifying and surmounting crucial data gaps and capacity constraints. 

Subsequently, an alternative path emerged as the focal point of this Living Lab endeavor – the establishment of a Network of Small Rural Businesses (SRB), an area overlooked in previous projects. Discussions revealed an absence of representation for SRBs in regional strategies, emphasizing the need to address this gap. The rationale and objectives for this initiative include:  

  • Data Gap Pinpointing: Systematically identifying and addressing data gaps while mapping the current regional state. 
  • Comprehensive Understanding: Cultivating a profound understanding of the challenges confronted by entrepreneurs and business owners. 
  • Justifying the Necessity: Utilizing meticulously collected data to substantiate the imperative of instituting a regional network/platform for SRBs. 
  • Central Hub Functionality: Picturing the envisioned platform as a pivotal central hub adept at addressing challenges and providing indispensable support. 
  • Innovation Pathway: Charting a course that paves the way for innovative projects in unwavering support of SRBs. 

Daria Ernst’s presentation not only showcased a thoughtful consideration of challenges but also illuminated a strategic roadmap for transformative action, promising impactful contributions to the socio-economic fabric of Nockregion-Oberkärnten. As these Living Lab initiatives progress, they hold the potential to redefine the narrative of rural development, furnishing invaluable insights and solutions applicable to analogous regions globally. 

Interacting with EU Projects 

Participation in this webinar provided a valuable opportunity to engage with various projects focused on rural development. Presentations from GRANULAR, SHERPA, ROBUST, and insights beyond European projects were shared, fostering a collaborative exchange of ideas and strategies. The interaction emphasized the pivotal role of Living Labs in shaping effective policies for rural advancement. As the discussions unfold, the shared experiences promise to enhance the collective knowledge pool and drive impactful initiatives in the realm of rural development.