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Published: 2023-10-06

Researching to improve the berry industry – for people and inland regions

PROFILE Migration is a social phenomenon and a topic of debate that has become increasingly relevant in recent years. Charlotta Hedberg studies migration from several perspectives, including Thai berry pickers in Sweden and as a way for people to find a more peaceful lifestyle. She will be inaugurated as a professor at Umeå University during the 2023 Annual Celebration

Image: Alexandra Granath, simon ohman jonsson inhousebyran

The fact that Charlotta Hedberg developed an interest in and has dedicated her research to migration can be traced back to her roots. 

“Migration is part of my background, partly on my mother’s side, my maternal grandfather was a war refugee from Estonia, and on my father’s side with slightly more internal migration; he grew up in the hinterland of Piteå and then moved to Umeå to study,” she says. 

Charlotta Hedberg has also moved quite a bit during her life, within the city, Sweden and abroad.

“The vast majority of people have experiences of moving, and it affects us greatly. It affects our identity, where we are, who we are around and how we see ourselves in our surroundings. So, it’s very interesting in that way,” she says.

It affects our identity, where we are, who we are around and how we see ourselves in our surroundings.

Like for so many others who have become professors in any field, Charlotta Hedberg’s path was not marked out. In the mid-1990s, she stood like a blank page in front of a notice board with information about human geography and the study opportunities the subject provided, and she was hooked. A semester or so later, she followed her friends to study in Uppsala – one of life’s migrations.

“I often say it was the most impersonal moving decision I’ve ever made because I just went along for the ride,” she says.

But she ended up staying in Uppsala longer than anyone else. There she earned a Master’s degree, taking freestanding courses before beginning her doctoral studies. She wrote her doctoral thesis on Finnish-Swedish migration to Sweden, and after the defence of her doctoral thesis, she conducted research for a number of years and attained a senior lectureship at Stockholm University before taking a position at the Migration Studies Delegation at the Government Offices of Sweden.

“I got to see what it was like outside academia, and I’m very happy about that, because I realised how much I missed doing research myself and not just managing other people’s research,” she says. 

Charlotta Hedberg longed to return to the world of research, and when she became a parent, she also longed to return to Umeå.

“I wanted to come back home. My parents are here and I know it’s a good city to grow up in. Also, I never felt like a Stockholmer, even though there is a good labour market there and it offers better proximity in terms of engaging with authorities and exciting seminars and so on. But as a person, I fit in better here.”

Interview with Charlotta Hedberg

Why did she start researching migration, what is her focus and what drives her in her research. See interview with Charlotta Hedberg. (In Swedish).

She joined the Department of Geography at Umeå University, the same department at which her academic career started. She will come full circle during the 2023 Annual Celebration when she will be inaugurated as a professor. 

“It means that I’m recognised for what I’ve achieved, which is very nice. It also automatically gives me a bit more time for my research,” she says.

Migration from different perspectives

In her research, Charlotta Hedberg has looked at the migration process as a whole, internal and international migration, the consequences of migration for sending and receiving countries and how migration contributes to the creation of different types of relationships between places.

For the past ten years, she has had a particular focus on the migration process of Thai berry pickers between Thailand and Sweden. The background is the major problems that exist with both the migration industry and the berry industry. In her research, she strives to understand how the industry is structured and how it could improve the situation for migrants on social, ecological and economic levels. 

“I hope that my research will lead to a more sustainable industry for berry pickers and to sustainable regional development, not least for northern Sweden’s inland municipalities".

Another part of the project is aimed at the countryside – the berry industry is often linked to the countryside, as it is where berries are picked and a number of these companies are located there. Charlotta Hedberg believes that the berry industry could be much more important for rural areas and inland municipalities in northern Sweden.

“Most berries are picked by foreign workers, frozen and often shipped internationally or to the Swedish jam and food industry. The more sophisticated products made from berries are made abroad,” she says, showing a face mask made from bilberries produced in China as an example.

There has been a group of entrepreneurs who have found a way to make money quickly and for them it has been great to do it this way.

This industry could benefit northern Sweden more if these processes were relocated there or owned by actors in the region.

Why do we not capitalise on the industry in northern Sweden?

“It’s partly because it’s an industry that exists in Norrland, and we haven’t trained the kind of engineers who process berries in that way here,” she says, and continues:

“I also think it’s a result of how the picking industry itself has been organised. There has been a group of entrepreneurs who have found a way to make money quickly and for them it has been great to do it this way, but it hasn’t had a ripple effect on the region.”

Do you see any signs that we in Sweden are starting to make better use of our own berries?

“Yes, we see in our project that there is an emerging interest in this, not least among authorities and institutions that support research,” she says.

Northern Sweden encourages a simpler life

Another research project that Charlotta Hedberg is currently working on concerns a completely different type of migrant. The project deals with ‘downshifting’ linked to rural areas, i.e. people who move to rural areas in search of a slower pace and different quality of life and to engage with different values. If sufficiently widespread, this could be an important population driver for small municipalities.

“I think this group could be quite important for rural areas because it is often people with ideas and creativity who are looking for more sparsely populated areas to live in,” says Charlotta Hedberg.

There are aspects of the Swedish countryside that deserve to be recognised.

In the same way that her background has given her an interest in migration, her upbringing in the north has contributed to her interest in the countryside. 

“Even though I started my research career in southern Sweden, I gravitated towards these types of questions, and I think that’s because I wanted to reconnect with this place in some way. There are hidden gems that you might not discover through an urban discourse and urban values; there are aspects of the Swedish countryside that deserve to be recognised.”

What do you think you will be researching in 5–10 years?

“I’ll still be researching migration. But I think I’ll have broadened my research in labour migration to several different groups of migrants, broad-based migration and how migration affects places. That includes a wider focus on different groups of temporary labour,” she says, mentioning, among other things, the social transformation of the north, where questions are being raised about who is building factories, housing and other facilities in growing communities. 

“Because I don’t think it’s predominantly local talent that has done that.” 

Whatever happens in the future, it will probably follow the common thread in her research career.

”I’m driven by trying to solve social problems but also a thirst for knowledge and curiosity,” says Charlotta Hedberg.