Researcher tackles rural and ag policy disconnect

For Ashleigh Weeden, agriculture has always felt like a second cousin once removed.

She didn't grow up on a farm but her mom and dad both came from family farms so she always had a knowing of and access to the agriculture community.

As an only child, Ashleigh had a very tight-knit relationship with her parents throughout her childhood and still does today.

Ashleigh said being an "only" with supportive parents afforded many opportunities. She was instilled with the confidence to try everything and with that in mind, she became one of the top amateur pipers in North America. Yes, Ashleigh can rock a bagpipe and has even played on stage with the legendary Paul McCartney! Ashleigh followed in her father's footsteps when it came time to pick a post-secondary school. She attended the University of Guelph and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in International Development Studies.

Her schooling didn't stop there. Next up was a Master's in Public Administration from the University of Victoria- a degree that Ashleigh said made her "employable."

"The program had a co-op segment and I finished my master's in December and had a position with the Region of Waterloo in January. It was a quick turn around and the beginning of my real interest in local government," Ashleigh said.

Municipal government was the perfect fit for Ashleigh, who said she always had an interest in public service. Seeing an immediate result on many projects was one of the draws, as was getting the public involved in decision-making.

In 2012, with a couple of years under her belt, Ashleigh got the opportunity to work for Grey County. She would become the county's first communications officer, a role that allowed her to take on a variety of tasks while still keeping one foot in the policy world.

"It was a smaller office so I was able to do a little bit of everything," Ashleigh said.

In that, Ashleigh was seconded to work on a number of projects related to broadband Internet in rural areas. One example was the SouthWestern Integrated Fibre Technology project, more commonly referred to as SWIFT.

It was through her work with Grey County that Ashleigh really got to see the disconnect between rural policy and agricultural policy.

"People think if we have ag policy we automatically have rural policy but they are different. We can support ag but if we're not supporting the communities where ag happens, that won't work," Ashleigh said.

According to Ashleigh, the detachment was evident. She said the people who were making decisions about local development had no idea around where it was coming from. The focus was all urban. Rural was not part of the conversation.

Meanwhile, almost all of the rural policy that was out there was based on nostalgia of what used to be or based on the notion that rural is broken and urban is not.

This frustrated the public servant but it also drove her to return to the University of Guelph and take a PhD in Rural Studies. Ashleigh had always planned on doing a PhD and after 10-years in the workforce, it was time.

Ashleigh is working her way through the second year of her program. Her core doctoral research is on place-based innovations.

"I am interested in the notion of place and what that means for producing innovation," Ashleigh said.

This means looking at rural places that are doing well and asking why. Why would a rural community in Scotland or New Zealand succeed and how do we build on what's already working.

Ashleigh's other areas of interest include infrastructure on rural economic development and getting into the policy side of the conversation so decisions actually reflect the people they're impacting.

Advocating for diversity is important to the student too.

"We need diversity at the table and not just diversity of gender. We need to have conversations about this, and whether or not anyone wants to admit it, the future of rural Canada looks different than what most people imagine," Ashleigh said.

As a self-proclaimed loudmouth, Ashleigh has no problem speaking up for those who aren't always represented or reflected.

When it comes to women in agriculture, a group that oftentimes fits into this category, Ashleigh has been sitting on a women in ag working group that's currently in development.

Lee-Ann Sutherland, a senior social scientist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, spearheaded the group, which includes researchers, community stakeholders, members of the Ag Women's Network, provincial agriculture bodies and representatives from the University of Guelph.

"There's some pretty significant cross-involvement in the group," Ashleigh said. "And there's a lot of cool research happening right now on gender and agriculture."

According to Ashleigh, research shows an "absolutely crazy lack of representation of women in decision-making positions on boards" but usually when the topic gets raised on social media, the loudest push back comes from other women.

Ashleigh said that in itself amplifies just how challenging this issue is.

"Because of the systemic sexism and barriers women face, it's turned around and felt like an attack. It's not an attack. It's an opportunity to look at the structural barriers that are in place that keep women from going into positions of real power," Ashleigh said.

Having conversations like this in the Ag Women's Network is something Ashleigh thinks is powerful. Hearing different points of view from women across the country is a good thing.

"They provide me with different experiences even when we don't agree. It's an opportunity to dig a little deeper."

Ashleigh will be spending the next two years completing her PhD. The plan is to graduate in 2021.

As for what comes after that, the researcher said she hopes to continue working with rural communities and whether that's as a public servant, an educator or a consultant, time will tell.

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