RESEARCH into the social and economic attitudes of Wimmera people highlights what is holding the region back.
Researchers shared their preliminary findings with Wimmera community leaders at a forum at Federation University in Horsham on Monday.
Amity Dunstan, Amy Isham, Catherine Tischler, Ember Parkin and Carmel Goulding spoke at the forum, titled "Economy in focus: What is holding regional Victoria back?" as part of a Rural Incubator of Social and Economic Research program.
The program is a collaboration between Federation University, the Wimmera Development Association and Regional Development Australia Grampians, which is now in its second of three years.
Robyn Gulline of the Wimmera Southern Mallee Regional Partnership said much of what she heard confirmed what she already knew.
"We need services to be delivered differently out here: The decisions and methodology imposed by Melbourne or federally don't work in our locations as they do in the cities," she said.
Federation university Wimmera campus head Geoff Lord said the findings vindicated the Wimmera's quality of life.
"I was interested to hear about the appeal of regional areas to "downshifters" in the 30-39 age group," he said.
"This will help us tailor the types of courses we provide, that will match their needs and the community still has a good workforce.
Amy Isham: Liaison officer needed
Amy Isham, who has worked in libraries for the blind and as an expert in VDX Library software, is researching what regional business people needed to grow.
Her paper was titled "The Regional Trifecta - the story so far". The trifecta referred to the three different leadership types: Managers, entrepreneurs and community leaders.
She said she had found policy could get in the way of Wimmera businesses overcoming challenges, and that family and business networks they built were much more important than official grants or business centre initiatives.
"One of the people I spoke to, they started in their kitchen and had friends go 'Gee I really enjoyed this product' and they managed to supply a local hospital with their food," she said.
"But it was getting things to the hospital which was the difficult bit. It was through those connections they were able to find a solution."
She suggested Wimmera councils and Regional Development Victoria create new jobs for liaison officers, to assist entrepreneurs in the early stages of starting businesses or organising community events.
"They need someone who can liaise between them and compliance and bureaucracy, find grants and write applications for them," she said.
"Often business people are extremely talented, but they're going to burn out if they're working against too many different barriers."
Cathy Tischler: Save yourselves
Ms Tischler is focusing on competition for funding in regional Victoria. Her research is informed by her previous role as an electorate officer for then Member for Lowan Hugh Delahunty.
"I saw a focus on economic worth and population numbers driving a lot of outcomes," she said.
"As a Wimmera resident I was quite concerned about our smaller population and our economic worth is tied to the seasons, and how we compete on that basis with other regions for government resources and private sector investment."
In her presentation "politics, equity and competition in regional Victoria", Ms Tischler said as a community, the Wimmera told itself it needed saving from outside influences.
"We tend to rely on our institutional leaders to make a lot of the big decisions. People like chief executives, councils, school principals. We need to look more widely than that ... to the people who are on the ground everyday - the grassroots people - to provide solutions much more strongly when we do."
Amity Dunstan: Make two phone calls
Mrs Dunstan's presentation was titled "Re-defining the socio-political position of the modern farm".
She said the widespread belief that farmers should "get big, or get out" to remain sustainable into the future was a misconception.
"My research is showing it's more about farm stability and measuring and monitoring through scientific practice," she said.
"For example, you lose the crop once it's harvested, but yield maps gives you the opportunity to talk about it giving it numerical values and records for long-term decision making and comparisons with service providers for other technologies you employ."
Mrs Dunstan and her partner Tom run a grains property at Telangatuk East. She said the lack of women in grains became more apparent during research.
"I never set out to do a gender-biased study, however, talking with Cathy and Amy, we have all found issues relating to women. Amy had a plethora of women in her research groups, I've had an absence," she said.
"Women are in grains, but mostly in part-time jobs or in household positions rather than in the paddock.
"We should make sure agronomists and real estate agents speak to everyone in the farm business, even if they have an off-farm job. We should be encouraging women to be getting on board with farm businesses not just with the books, but an understanding of their roles as directors."
Carmel Goulding: Embrace the downshifters
Carmel Goulding is undertaking her PhD on "downshifters" - people who make conscious lifestyle changes to consume less and change their way of working.
Her presentation was titled "A life less ordinary", and also looked at downshifting in the UK.
"One of the key drivers for people who are seeking this lifestyle change is rurality and people who are seeking connection to the land," she said.
"The group of people I looked at are highly skilled, so you have a potential new skillset coming into regional and rural areas also prepared to work in different ways.
"They're also not set in career paths. If a town doesn't have a productive labor aspect associated with it, these people aren't necessarily dissuaded by that, so I'd encourage people to actively look at their towns as potential homes for downshifters."
Ms Goulding highlighted Natimuk and its arts scene as an example of the positive change downshifters could have on small communities. She said she had found some communities hadn't been completely welcoming of new arrivals.
"Downshifters are looking to be engaged in the community, so I think people need to be more open-minded to the positivity of it."
Ember Parkin: Connectivity for young people
The Ballarat-based academic presented her research "Stay or go? Young people's agency and mobility in and out of small towns".
She used the regional centres of Maryborough and Castlemaine as case studies for her research into the impact cultural features have on convincing young people to consider their futures there.
Her findings included that young people in Castlemaine placed a high value on the town's train station, not as a way out but a way of providing autonomy and a sense of involvement in the town.
Her research also suggested regional centres would benefit from having social spots for young people free of community surveillance and opportunities for them to be publicly creative and appreciate creativity, such as the street art in Maryborough.
The next steps
Dr Tim Harrison, now chief executive of Ararat Rural City Council, helped to develop the project while he worked with Federation University. He remains an honorary member of the Collaborative Research Centre for Australian History.
"There was interesting research about representation and how we can connect young people to regional communities," he said.
"All good research has a practical endpoint, and there are practical outcomes we can bring from this research today."
Dr Harrison said the five candidates had another year to analyse the data they had collected from the Wimmera and demonstrate they have developed new knowledge.
"It would be great to have another session next year where they come back and talk clearly about what they have found," he said.
"Today's really where they are at and what they think they've found, but next time, they'll have a really strong sense of impacts their research might have, so that will be a really important time to bring everyone back together."