Culture & Agriculture

a section of the American Anthropological Association

Category: Weekly Gleaning (Page 1 of 3)

Weekly Gleaning 6/2: Rational Agriculture

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture.

In 1998 Alfred Gell gave his opinion on what anthropology does best:

Anthropology is, to put it bluntly, considered good at provided close-grained analysis of apparently irrational behavior, performances, utterances, etc

Some have questioned farmer support for Donald Trump as such “apparently irrational” behavior, particularly in light of proposed budget cuts to the USDA, potential loss of agricultural labor and antagonism towards climate change measures. There is a certain smugness here, that these irrational people are getting what they deserve for making such an obviously wrong decision, against their own self-interest. Perhaps we need more close-grained analysis from anthropologists doing what they “do best”.

Since almost all behavior is, from somebody’s point of view, ‘apparently irrational’ anthropology has, possibly, a secure future

Secretary of Ag Sonny Perdue defends the re-organization (read: demotion?) of rural development within the USDA and the budget proposal

The National Sustainable Agriculture weighs in on the budget and withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

A new documentary film from FarmAid unravels the 80s farm crisis

Remembering Sydney Mintz

Cacao ceremonies in San Francisco

Exploring the Plantationocene in Malaysia and Indonesia

Weekly Gleaning 5/19: Rural America is a colony

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week – Wendell Berry, autonomous barley and shifts in the USDA.

“Rural America is a colony, and its economy is a colonial economy,” Wendell Berry writes in his response to an essay that forwards Joan Didion’s new South and West. Berry defends Rural America against those who have been explaining rural political inclinations as primarily a product of nostalgia.

The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price.

Maybe the colonial narrative is as guilty of reductionism as the nostalgia narrative – but at least it moves the conversation away from a weakness of rural character to the demonstrable effects of economic policies and practices.

“My goal to be American agriculture’s unapologetic advocate and chief salesman around the world.” New secretary of ag Sonny Perdue creates a new undersecretary position for agricultural trade, in effect displacing rural development to a lower priority.

Autonomous barley planting, cultivation and harvesting.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture safe, for now, by virtue of a governor’s veto.

Colony collapse of honeybees is all over the news, but even more worrying are indications that total insect biomass has also been falling at alarming rates.

New research on the role of unconscious selection in the first human crop domestications.

The world’s largest indoor farm under construction in Camden, New Jersey.

Listen to a podcast on ginkgo-human entanglement throughout history.

Weekly Gleaning 5/4: The meaning of work

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. 

Food workers rally on May Day

The latest episode of the Our Land short films features farms of the Catholic Workers Alliance

The Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog makes a good point about word choice

UK food systems post-Brexit

New article about wild rice and Ojibwe food sovereignty

Trailer for Golden Genes: The Movie, about gene and seed banks – “What does it mean to be part of nature in the age of the genome?”

Weekly Gleaning 4/27: Rural Prosperity

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: the new executive order, walnut histories and wild foraging labeling 

What Wealth Is – Rebecca Gayle Howell

When you eat the same food as your livestock, your animals, the beasts
you rear from teat to trough—rear up for tender, the cut—
when you chew in your mouth what you dump into theirs
when you know their bodies are not today separate from your body,
the noise-making heat, green flies all around,
when the garden yard is stopped short by its wall of corn, its room of corn,
tall as any useful man, tall as money’s gate,
you know: your hand, rising up and opening, is the devil to which all this prays
and in your dream you walk in past the gate, into the corn,
taller than you, into its room, and it’s dark here, the husk ceiling
its own shallow, unlit, selfish sun, and at your feet the path narrows into a limit
that makes the leaves for a moment look like the ocean folding in on itself or the church
women praising with their palm fans, the church women who knew once
what to do, and so you put your god hand up and open to touch the fronds
thinking they will know what to do, and they are sharp as the stained blade your daddy
carried, sharp as the cut, and your blood hand is bleeding now, your face,
bleeding, and you close your eyes and walk because isn’t this the way out?

This week saw the confirmation of Sonny Perdue as Secretary of Ag and an executive order from the White House on Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America. “Food is a noble thing to trade”, Perdue declared at the hearing.

Meanwhile, the US is losing its dominance in agricultural exports. The Iowa senate and house voted on Tuesday to cut funding to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. The prairie that Aldo Leopold loved so dearly is breaking. What is wealth?


The Southern Foodways Alliance has been collecting the oral histories of Helvetia, West Virginia. Population fifty-nine.

A remarkable history of the walnut and its entanglements with the Silk Road. Why have investigations into the origins of agriculture mostly ignored tree crops?

“Fairwild” labeling and schisandra berry harvesting in China

Analytics of indigenous Hawaiian agricultural systems

ICARDA’s seed bank in Syria is still holding on

Weekly Gleaning 4/20: Higher Agriculture

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: ant farmers, re-peasantization and cannibalism 

This week’s gleaning is not inspired by certain recreational practices associated with today’s date (but check out a short ethnographic film from Sapiens on marijuana tourism in Morocco). Instead it reflects on the first development of “higher forms” (read: complex, large scale) of agricultural production, not by humans in Neolithic Mesopotamia, but by leaf-cutter ants moving into dryland environments 30 million years ago. A study in last week’s Proceedings of the Royal Society reports that the “world’s first sustainable, industrial-scale agriculture began when crops became dependent on their ant farmers. The way we talk about fungus farming by ants is often colored by the way we think about human farming. Why would we call ant farming industrial? The authors distinguish the agricultural behavior of these ants from the “lower, primitive forms of ant agriculture”, where fungus species are not fully domesticated.

Conventional distinctions between peasant and industrial forms of human agriculture often feature similar descriptors. Rita Calvario has a new article out in the Journal of Peasant Studies following re-peasantization movements in the Basque territory that subvert modernization narratives of agricultural progress. Why do we see high and low agriculture as more-than-human universals? How could more-than-human perspectives of ant agriculture in turn subvert contemporary concepts of food sovereignty?

Farmer Fair Practice implementation delayed 180 days

A new USDA agricultural census season

Grape genetic resources in the Holy Land

The cannibalism taboo

Greek legislation allowing farmers to purchase state-owned land

Weekly Gleaning 4/11: Human food webs

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: Pueblo food webs, budget cuts and hacked tractors

In most diagrams of ecosystem food webs, humans are conspicuously absent – hovering somewhere above the page, unbound from the cycles of predation. This makes a recent paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science reconstructing Ancestral Puebloan foodwebs so welcome, for the way it emphasizes the complex entanglements between humans, plants and animals. Questions about the role of humans in their ecosystems are also explored in a recent article on Mongolian reindeer herders and local conservation practices.

As modern agriculture has tended to disembed farmers from their agroecosystems and entangle them in non-local webs of markets and technology, this domination of the nonhuman world has not necessarily been experienced by farmers as empowering. Often it has been the opposite. See recent publications on the farm crisis in Kansas, rural suicide, the asymmetry of the so called ‘ag boom’ and the predicted impacts of Trump’s USDA budget cuts.

Coming full circle, North American farmers are now even being disembedded from their most intimate technological relationships. The ongoing saga over the right to repair’ their John Deere tractors continues to develop, with farmers beginning to hack their tractors with Ukrainian firmware (also check out the good folks at Farm Hack).

Glenn Stone and Dominic Glover on the disembeddedness of Golden Rice and multiple rice worlds in the Philippines

My Adventures with the American Diet, a series by Chunyan Song at

Land grabbing in Ethiopia

This amazing collaborative map of perennial farms




Weekly Gleaning 3/23: the worm moon

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: El Sur Latino, rich farmers and mental health.

It’s typical of a cultural solar bias that all the attention goes to spring equinox and very little to the worm moon – March’s full moon – so called because the soil is beginning to be workable by worm and human alike. Following the frost heaves of a politically (and existentially) disruptive winter, a new growing season invites us to get our hands back in the earth. In some ways this invites novel practices of academics, activists and food producers alike – check out the anthropology read-in group and Carole McGranahan on going rogue. In other ways it’s familiar terrain: farmers struggling with mental health and retirement; health of migrant farm labor (also in Sicily); unrest over environmental regulations. Here in Utah the cherries are blossoming.

The earthworms awakened under the worm moon generate bioturbation – productive disruptions. What productive disruptions are in store this season? If we need some optimism about what the spring might bring, perhaps there’s no better place to look than New Zealand, where Te Awa Tupua (the Whanganui River) has been declared a legal person.

// in other news //

The United States joins International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, after a 14 year ratification process

A list of the world’s richest farmers

Southern Foodways Alliance series on El Sur Latino

The National Academies publish a response to an analysis that found conflicts of interest in the Acadamies’ Committee on Genetically Engineered Crops

Weekly Gleaning 3/9: soil science fiction

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: gamma gardens, food dystopia, and animal autonomy

At what point in the 20th-century did science fiction lose the capacity to imagine utopia? Why are we so sure that things will get worse? As David Graeber’s asks – where are the flying cars? Transmango published an article last week about the looming post-Brexit food dystopia in Britain, but the real dystopian stuff coming off the press is on another scale entirely. The categorization of Earth as a toxic planet. A UN Human Rights report on the sixth great extinction as a human rights issue.

Going full sci-fi, the consistently great design podcast 99% Invisible has a new episode out on post-WWII Gamma Gardens, where plants were grown around radioactive towers in an attempt to accelerate plant breeding. Today, developments in CRISPR-Cas9 are beginning to pick up, with patent battles and proposals to employ the technology to tinker with seasonality and even to induce the first new wave of plant domestication since the Neolithic Revolution.

Then there are the more immediate consequences of steps towards dystopia – closer to speculative fiction than sci-fi: fear in the Central Valley, a wall through Tohono O’odham land, dealing with the realities of planting zones moving northward. Margaret Atwood has written about the Ustopia, “a world I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other”.

What are the “little utopias” latent in these times?

The Burren from The Perennial Plate on Vimeo.

Other links of interest:

A team of French ethnographers challenge the characterization of pastoralism as ‘protective domination’, demonstrating that multiple North Asian relationships of husbandry actually encourage animal autonomy

Where is Sonny Perdue?

A plant theory of mind

Advocating towards student debt relief for young farmers

Weekly Gleaning 2/15: whale fall

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: colonial farm policy, medieval climate change, and octopus farming.

Image credit: Jen Christiansen (whale-fall illustration); Catherine Wilson (species inset illustrations)

Sometimes when a whale dies, the carcass sinks down below the shallows to the abyssal zone. On the ocean floor, the rotting flesh generates its own local ecosystem that can endure for decades. Trump – the new Leviathan in Chief – has indeed generated a complex ecosystem around his persona, multiple trophic levels of rhetoric and resistance. For better or worse, much of the inherently political scholarship of farming and food systems will be operating in relation to this context, at least for the time being. As Congresswoman Chellie Pingree calls the current state of US food policy the “foggiest crystal ball” she has ever seen, the challenge is to descend – poised – into the abyss without becoming transfixed by the sublime presidential object.

Photo Credit: Dishing it Out

“Who the fuck hates shwarma?” is the sign that inspired Dishing it Out, an ongoing collection of “food-themed protest posters”.

The Syria Supper Club is allowing refugees to connect with their neighbors through shared meals and also raises money for their living expenses.

Though the future of farm policy seems uncertain to many, an early look at the next Farm Bill process looks like more of the same.

A new article from the Journal of Peasant Studies presents an analysis of colonialism in US farm policy, showing that ‘more of the same’ is more of profoundly unjust policies towards the majority of those involved with production agriculture.

Two pieces providing some historical context for environmental and racial crises facing contemporary agriculture. First, new evidence that agricultural decline due to climate change during the Little Ice Age may have been responsible for the collapse of Cahokia, the largest of the indigenous Mississippian city-states. Second, a short essay on slave owner’s use of food as a means of control, through the words of Frederick Douglas’ memoirs.

The Wall Street Journal warns about the “next American farm bust”. Recall that the last American farm bust precipitated rural poverty that manifested politically in surprisingly major ways.

But maybe you’d rather read about a Mayan octopus farming cooperative.

Photo Credit: Richard Schweid

Weekly Gleaning 2/8: power plantations

Our weekly gleanings present the latest happenings, research and writing along the tangled banks of culture and agriculture. This week: structure and agency, the failure of food waste, and a fish hub.

“What makes a “plantation” different from the industrial strawberry fields of California’s Central Valley?”, asks Sarah Besky in a conversation published last week at Chapati Mystery. She notes widespread hesitancy in using the word to describe the agriculture systems that currently produce much of the world’s tea, fruit and coffee – as if plantations belonged to a bygone “era”. Donna Haraway and others have coined the Plantationocene to refer to our times, writing that “the slave plantation system was the model and motor for the carbon-greedy machine-based factory system that is often cited as an inflection point for the Anthropocene” – if there is such a thing as a plantation era, it is happening right now.

Talking about plantations is important because it directs focus on a particularly unjust structural arrangement of agricultural practices. As the change in administration carries with it a sometimes blinding fixation on the agency of one man, it becomes doubly important to maintain an incisive analytic towards structures of oppression like plantations.

Regarding that change in administration, an article in Nature describes responses to one of the last acts of the FDA before the inauguration – a draft rule requiring that genetically altered animals be subject to the same regulation process as new pharmaceuticals (e.g. dairy cows modified to develop without horns). Modern Farmer has done an overview of January ag policy happenings in case you missed something.

Raj Patel and Nick Saul wrote into The Globe and Mail to argue that tackling hunger also requires a more structural approach than redirecting food waste. “It’s awkward to look at how our current disposable-food culture creates waste. Much easier, then, to turn the poor into garbage-disposal units.” Their proposal is to focus on livable wages, affordable housing and social support, and point to the success of community food hubs in Canada.

Lastly, an inspiring story from Civil Eats about the development of a fish hub in Monterey, California, modeled after those Canadian food hubs. Are food and fish hubs the anti-plantation – a more just and inclusive structural arrangement of farmers and eaters? What might an era of food hubs look like? Like the plantation structure, it appears to be replicable and adaptable to new contexts as shown by Monterey’s fish hub. Food hub structures also contain implicit assumptions about the worth and positioning of different human and nonhuman subjects within agroecosystems.

The inexplicably long wait for a new Secretary of Ag, the unpredictability of Sonny Perdue, and the unknowns concerning the president’s anti-globalization agenda are only the beginning of a strange era for agriculture in the United States. Who is the master of the plantation?

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