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Notes from the Field

Class and Local Pigs in North Carolina: Notes on Brad Weiss’s Real Pigs

By: E. Paul Durrenberger, Penn State (Emeritus)

Policymakers of North Carolina have engaged in a race to the bottom with other southern states to create an internal Third World in the United States to provide cheap labor and lax regulation for corporate rapacity. One result is a stratum of affluent, imported pharmaceutical and technical workers in a state that is near the bottom of rankings for education, healthcare, diet and any other quality-of-life measure. Alienated from family and regional roots, these well-heeled people are afloat in a sea of rural and urban poverty, ignorance and infirmity that is the result of the same pernicious policy regime. This book is about how they seek connection via food. In part, they want to express opposition to the very powerful industrial swine complex in their state.

In the mid-1990’s Kendall Thu and I toured North Carolina to learn about industrial swine production in Confined Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs that were springing up in Iowa with attendant respiratory ailments that came to the attention of Iowa’s Center for Agricultural Safety and Health where Kendall worked. Our task was to understand the reasons for this threat to rural health. We heard that Iowa had to follow North Carolina’s example so we went there and heard the stories of many rural residents at their wits’ ends after being denied all recourse for their grievances. We brought back the message that there was nothing good in this system for Iowans.

We then met with farmers across Iowa and heard their disquiet. We found that the industry was supported by a tripod of the largest industrial swine producer, the governor and the state’s land grant institution just as in North Carolina (Thu and Durrenberger 1998). North Carolina was later swept by hurricanes that coated the whole state in swine muck (known to the trade by the optimistic term, “nutrient”) then swamped by an award-winning newspaper exposé of the industry. That was enough to drive the affluent immigrants to seek alternative meat. One thread that runs through the book is the impact and influence of books and articles about food and food systems.

Weiss mentions the slow food movement, food reform, the alternative and the local food movement, and just the food movement. From the book, it’s difficult to ascertain the extent to which this is an undertaking or just a number of unorganized individual responses to something about our food and environment. I think that lack of focus represents the ethnographic reality he is describing.

A movement entails both organized structure and spontaneous response. Weiss describes a lot of spontaneous or only slightly organized actions, so maybe there is a basis for a movement, but, as in the rest of the country, it is so diffused among many organizations and settings that it’s difficult to see any collective action. Because each example of food-centered action is fraught with contradictions, ambiguities and paradoxes, Weiss’s descriptions are appropriately rich and multidimensional to portray those complexities.

For instance, in part because of various U.S. and state regulations, processing is a bottleneck that small meat producers must find a way through or around. Restaurants and retailers, like the big processors, need a steady and predictable supply of meat that small producers are unable to produce without scaling up considerably. And if they scale up, they risk becoming that which they are resisting. The rub might just be that small scale farming is incompatible with capitalism.

Then the problem is how is it possible to imagine an alternative to capitalist food production in the U.S.? Though Weiss doesn’t make much of it, he shows us that the small pork people of North Carolina are evolving their own non-market alternatives based on trust and confidence. In the end, though, they must rely on consumers who are willing to pay premium prices for their pork. And that’s another contradiction: people who want to work in agriculture wind up beholden to an audience of wealthy connoisseur consumers, who are involved in part, Weiss tells us, for the prestige of it. Thus, the producers with dirt under their fingernails, mud on their boots, and callouses on their hands are entailed in a system that depends on their economic antitheses. It’s hard for me to imagine the common interests of all of these people that would drive the collective action necessary for a movement.

Weiss artfully shows us how food becomes an arena for the acquisition and display of prestige and how in the process humble comestibles become sophisticated as they move from being fuel for human bodies to the rarified exchanges of prestige competition among the wealthy. Food becomes a commodity for the perusal of prestige sometimes cloaked as what seems to me to be a faux concern for the fate of the planet; faux because it is all talk and no consequence and it avoids work. Like ski vacations and wine tasting from which it draws attitude and vocabulary, food becomes another commodity for prestige consumer lust, along with clothing, travel, cars and residences. Compare the cars in any Whole Foods parking lot with those in any fast food outlet.

Brad Weiss invites us to hear the voices of the people involved from all directions. Authenticity is to be found in rural poverty, the opposite pole to urbane sophistication of the modern. But those who are mired in authenticity long to escape it, like the grandmother of one of Weiss’s informants, Chef Kevin Callaghan who wanted nothing more than a clean grocery store and a freezer. In my experience, authenticity entails a quest for food, fuel and water, tending fires, houses full of smoke, crowding, disease and often crushing poverty and abuse from inside and out of the household. It involves suffering and death without medical care or the hope of prolonging life or relieving suffering. That’s authenticity, and that’s what people flee in their march to the cities and the industrial food that supports them.

As a person mainly of the last half of the 20th century, I’ve had only a few brushes with authenticity: my East Texas relatives slaughtering a semi-feral hog and my grandmother’s relishing the brains, kidney and head cheese, drawing water from the well, the wood fired stove, a luxury in those times and parts. Later, living with a tribal people in the Thai highlands I had some authentic pork when villagers killed a wild pig. The meat was rich with the flavor of the forest, gamy with the taste of boar and smoke. The more ordinary pigs that people ate in sacrificial feasts ranged free in the day to consume human and animal waste and whatever they could find in the forest, but returned to the pen behind the house at night for a daily ration of corn. But it was equally authentic.

One indispensable component of the mix Weiss discusses is the connoisseurs who make up a large part of the consumers for North Carolina’s local pork, and the less accomplished eaters who serve as their audience. Even in their vocabulary these aficionados remind us of wine tasters. And taking off from that, Weiss discusses the possibilities of importing the concept of terroir from wine country to pig country. This is the complex idea of how place and how the sun, rain, terrain, the people and their practices affect the product.—

But, Weiss reminds us, the central topic of the book is a Spanish pig from a coastal island where it evolved on its own for a few centuries until it caught the attention of medical researchers because it mimicked human characteristics of interest. Then an aggie from one of the two land grants (this being the South there is one for white folks and one for black folks) who began reviving the breed. Then a pastured swine enthusiast who spent a long time in California before she went home to North Carolina started breeding that line with an American line descended from English and Chinese breeds. Other producers are from other places, and precious few from Carolina and the eaters are from all over the place. So where’s the place? Spain? China?  People make this stuff up as they go along, and there’s plenty to work with here. Weiss finally concludes that the concept of terroir doesn’t really fit these hogs.

But from time to time, Weiss slips into the terroir of the super-intellectualized abstractions of his mentors at the University of Chicago. These bits are fun if you’re a fan of that sort of thing, and he puts our feet back on the ground with the words of his various informants.

The best reviews I’ve ever gotten for my work have been when a shrimper, autoworker, longshoreman or farmer read it and complimented me. That’s no doubt because of my own background (Durrenberger 2014). It’s a question of audience; I prefer an audience of the working people of the planet, not the elites. My one wish for this book and for future work would be to make it accessible to the person who is killing, butchering or selling the pig.

Here’s another wish for future work. Weiss points out the role of the Land Grant Universities in both the CAFO system (North Carolina State—the white one) and in the revival of the wild Spanish pig (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical-the black one). The American Land Grants have been the center of the global industrial food system. Meant to be peoples’ universities to provide skills for local working people, they have morphed into the R&D branch of agribusiness, which now largely controls them. This is a big enough and significant enough topic to deserve a separate book, if perhaps not as optimistic as Real Pigs. If Brad Weiss is looking for a new topic, I commend this one.

At the beginning of this year, while my wife, Suzan and I were visiting our daughter in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, where she lives in the fishing, farming and retirement town of Date, she wanted us to sample the Nepali food there, but the local restaurant was closed so we drove to the neighboring industrial giant of Muroran, home to the Japanese Steel Works that put Beth Steel and other American steelmakers out of work. There she spoke in Japanese with the Nepali chef about various matters as we enjoyed our Nepali food. I would suppose that would be the antithesis of local food except for Weiss’s introduction of Vimala Rajendran from the backwaters of India where she lived with European influenced Catholics from Goa and Mangalore. In Bombay, she was surrounded by the same people and their pigs. The Portuguese introduced red chilies and garlic that people cooked with pork in palm vinegar. She tells the story of coming to North Carolina, of opening and running a community kitchen and finally a restaurant. Now that’s local food.

These days the quest for real food, Weiss suggests, is a way to seek authenticity. That real food comes out of a system of rural poverty. North Carolina Piedmont people who live in cities and work for corporations seek to detach their food from that system and make it an object of veneration and prestige.

Each fall combine harvesters devour the corn and soy beans of Iowa to begin the journey to factories where they are converted into corn sweeteners, soy protein, and various forms of fiber, fuel, and food. Then these basic building blocks are combined with others to produce the industrial foods that are the staple of the American diet. Unlike systems of authentic food, this one is not organized by subsistence need or prestige hunger but by markets that translate distant desire into universal money. So corn from Iowa goes to feed pigs in North Carolina, Utah and other big CAFO states, as well as in Iowa. Those CAFO pigs are then slaughtered and rendered into parts in factories owned by a giant Chinese corporation and exported around the planet.

While I was reading Real Pigs I went to Iowa City to hear a talk by one of the founders of Seed Savers’ Exchange of Decorah, Iowa, David Carvagnaro. He discussed the origins of the heirloom plants the organization is dedicated to propagating and preserving. His answer to the question of what makes an heirloom plant was that attached to it is a family story about how it came from the old country. In his study of origins he learned that in spite of such stories, all of the ingredients of his family’s Italian cooking were from other places: onions and garlic from Central Asia, tomatoes and peppers from the Americas, olives from the Near East and so on. Everything was from someplace else. So, I think Weiss is correct to tell us about the local, but not to insist on it too much. People have been discussing authenticity since the 19th century drive to collect national literatures and codify languages, so that’s an old issue, and I think people make of it whatever suits their current purposes.

From time to time in the book, Weiss ponders what a solution might be to the maladies of our food system. That’s a tough one, as the book shows, because always lurking in the background are the indomitable CAFO system, agribusiness and Morrill Land Grants. Against them in Quixotic battle are a handful of local swine producers loosely in league with some connoisseurs, small scale meat processors, chefs, restaurateurs and others who make up the local food system of North Carolina’s Piedmont region.

Weiss reports some surveys but in spite of innovations in ethnographic methods (Bernard 2011), he never systemizes his findings to provide insight into the relative saliency of concepts such as terroir for different groups. He acknowledges the profound racism of the place as well as class divisions but, having done so, does not incorporate either. This is quite understandable as it seems the black pork producers are working in a separate (if not equal) realm rarely penetrated by the white elites that are the audience for heritage breed hogs. He also mentions class and ponders the mentality of folks who inquire about the wellbeing of the hog but not the people who produce it. On the other hand, a close analysis of the class and race dimensions of these phenomena might cloud the otherwise hopeful picture Weiss is painting. And rightfully. There needs to be some place for optimism in what would otherwise be a sea of gloomy prospects.

Another topic that he acknowledges but does not treat systematically is the political economy of small scale farming. Unless people inherit land (and some do), they have to purchase or rent it. That means a bank loan or a periodic rent payment. And that means that a sizable part of their budget will be devoted to servicing that loan or rent. The bank or landowner always looms as the first obligation. To one informant Weiss says that he had learned that to make money in farming a person needs to own land or get it from an off farm job (49).

Some of the problems we face in Iowa are similar. Our understanding of the political economy of small scale farming has led Suzan and me to the conclusion that there is something that we can do to promote alternatives. That is to organize a non-profit land trust (Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, SILT) that will remove land from the market to transform it into a non-commodity so that developers and industrial farmers cannot continue to bid up the prices. The organization then makes the land available on favorable terms to small scale farmers to sustainably produce healthy food for the people of our cities and towns. This is the best way we could find to guarantee local food is grown in Iowa decades from now, a way that doesn’t price local food farmers out of the market before they even get started, at that moment they start looking for land they can afford. Quixotic?  May be. Fraught with contradictions such as Weiss highlights? Definitely. But we think there’s hope, even in the midst of this food desert. And there are a lot of good people working with us to make it a reality. If you’d like to know more, you can have a look at the webpage at SILT.org.


Durrenberger, E. Paul. 2014. At the Foot of the Mountain: A Journey through Existentialism, Anthropology and Life. West Branch, Iowa. Draco Hill Press.

Bernard, H. Russell. 2011. Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitave Approaches. New York. AltaMira.

Thu, Kendall KM. and E. Paul Durrenberger. 1998. Pigs, Profits, and Rural Communities. Albany. State University of New York Press.

Weiss, Brad. 2016. Real Pigs: Shifting Values in the Field of Local Pork. Durhum, Duke University Press.

Bio: After teaching anthropology at the University of Iowa and Penn State, doing fieldwork in Thailand, Iceland and the US, and publishing many papers and books, Paul Durrenberger retired to rural Iowa where he and his wife, Suzan Erem, are growing food (Dracohill.org) and organizing the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT.org). His memoir, At the Foot of the Mountain, and collected essays, American Fieldnotes, are available at Amazon.


The New Wild West

By: James H. McDonald, Southern Utah University

Living in the public-land dominated Western US is an ongoing adventure, especially at the intersection of ranching, religion, public lands, the Constitution, and libertarian politics that has spawned the new range war. These range warriors are hanging onto a dying and unsustainable industry. Their recent dramatic and sometimes quite violent standoffs and occupations can be understood as a type of revitalization movement in the face of an incrementally growing existential threat to their livelihoods.

First it is useful to put the scale and impact of cattle grazing on federal public land into perspective. Two major public lands agencies administer grazing rights to ranchers. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers 18,000 licenses and permits for ranchers who graze on 21,000 allotments totaling 155 million acres (63% is open to grazing) (BLM 2016). The US Forest Service administers 8,455 allotments covering just under 90 million acres (47% is open to grazing) (GAO 1993). The fee for grazing was $1.35 per head per month in 2014, largely unchanged from 1978 (Clarke 2016). Public lands agencies could hardly be accused of holding back land or overcharging for access. However, they might be accused of less than stellar management of those lands when one-third are deemed in satisfactory condition with the remaining two-thirds as unsatisfactory (Muir 2012). In sum, a lot of land gets grazed on the cheap with considerable environmental impact but with no cost transferred to those doing the impacting. One might, then, credibly ask what beef do the ranchers in the Western US really have?

At base is the notion that public land is an open-access, free resource per Article 10 of the Constitution—free for the taking as either open range or reprivatized land. Public land under the stewardship and authority of the federal government never existed from this perspective. Especially among Mormon ranchers, the Bible and the Constitution are understood as divinely inspired texts.  Add to this mix a strong libertarian, anti-federal government ethos that lines up with and goes beyond the state’s rights movement, and you have the broad outlines of the situation.

Framed from an anthropological perspective, the contemporary “range war” fits well within A.F.C Wallace’s (1956) notion of a revitalization movement, especially the revivalistic variant (i.e., returning to past customs, values, and lifestyles) with a dash of a millenarianism in the form of divine intervention.  The stages of a revitalization movement stages are: 1) steady state, 2) period of individual stress, 3) period of cultural distortion, 4) period of revitalization, and 5) return to a steady state. Whatever the stresses of being on the ecological margins might have brought to ranchers in the region, much of the rural West lived under conditions of relative isolation until the mid-20th century with the construction of two-lane roads connecting major cities. As the region becomes increasingly integrated into the larger US, stress builds as lifeways are challenged building to cultural distortion that foreshadows the end of a viable ranching economy. In this context, the groundswell of “standoffs” and “occupations” in the West might well be seen as examples of secular ritual designed to chase off the federal government and re-establish the old order of open lands and unfettered, free access. Indeed, from Cliven Bundy’s perspective, initial use of a natural resource establishes open, free access as “natural law” (Quammen 2016)—keeping in mind that this is also celestial law given particular readings and understandings of the Constitution. Further, Cliven Bundy and his kin are the charismatic evangelists carrying the message. Indeed Bundy conflates the “range war” as the “Bundy war” (Quammen 2016). He also “equat[es] himself with the national spirit, saying he represents millions of Americans” (Carroll 2015).

The economic lifestyle and livelihood dependent on grazing on public land may seem to have a looming end, but they are not dying quietly. This amazing and fantastic ideology of the range warriors goes far beyond the state’s rights movement. (At least in Utah, it would appear that the idea of public land transfer, as exemplified in the 2012 Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act, centers on economic development, increased access fees, and decreased oversight—a revenue generator rather than a free resource.) It has a kinship with Scott’s (2009) notion of “reactive or stateless foragers”—self-governing, kin-based groups that have actively fled the state and its depredations, while at the same time strategically using the state’s presence for raiding or trading. How land would miraculously revert to a supposed original condition of open, free access is baffling. Even more mystifying is an alternative reading is that calls for public lands to be privatized and, apparently, given to the range warriors—a new latifundia (Clarke 2016). In either case, there is a clear need for divine intervention that would return the world to its supposed true and correct condition.

From Pipelines to Paris: Why Forests Matter More Now Than Ever Before

By: Duncan Earle, Marymount California University 
Culture and Agriculture, Fall 2015

According to a recent article in Science, research at the University of Leeds [i] has determined that the world’s forests and regrowth absorb nearly 40 per cent of the 38 billion metric tons of C02 from manmade fossil fuel emissions every year. This is twice what had been claimed as recently as 2009. [ii] As the first study to look at all the world’s forests together, researchers found that established woodlands, from boreal forests in the north to tropical rainforests in the south, absorb about 8.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Woodlands would be doing even more for the climate if not for the impacts of deforestation, resulting in almost 11 billion unabsorbed tons, and the continuing human use of fossil fuels, yielding another 28 billion. If even a large part of intentional annual burning of woodland was abated, forests could absorb half the greenhouse gasses produced today. Additional reforestation could cut into our carbon debt load, stimulating the move to an earlier normal. No technology has anywhere near the proven capacity to curtail this disaster. Ironically, it is nature that knows how to fix what we broke– but only if we save and promote the trees.


Credit: A. Reinbach

The danger lies in losing any more of this huge environmental service: the natural consumption of greenhouse gasses. Deforestation can only increase GHGs remaining in the atmosphere, as they will be unabsorbed by the forests, nature’s biggest plants. Consequently, preserving and increasing such woodlands are a realistic way out of the bind and the key to mitigation. To do so, we have to quickly come to see the world’s trees as twice as valuable as before, able to do twice what we thought in terms of extracting the surplus atmospheric C02. They are suddenly doubly important alive– against their value cut or burned. This means it is vital and timely to resist any form of deforestation everywhere in the world. It is difficult to influence what poor nations may decide to do, as many live off their natural resources, but in the wealthy nations we can afford to keep our trees standing. Indeed, we cannot afford to lose them. Every tree saved is another step towards our global return to balance. It is a change that can be made locally and nationally in the United States. The cost-benefit formula has changed.


Source: Compressor Free Franklin

The linkage of forests to climate change mitigation has implications for interrelated aspects of US life, ranging from increased funding for forest fire suppression to a moratorium on anything that will remove large quantities of trees. This would include projected and proposed infrastructure projects, like pipelines and similar construction that are often planned to cut through large swaths of interior forests and standing trees.[iii] For those opposing such infrastructure projects on environmental grounds, evaluating and citing the GHGs that will be added to the atmosphere by fracking, compressor stations and rural pipelines creates a new tool. If extraction contributes to climate change by actively polluting, and deforestation eliminates the natural cleansing of the air, then pipeline construction can be twice implicated.


Source: LNG World News

Currently, at least 50 new major onshore pipeline projects are in the planning and preconstruction phases.[iv] A classic case is that of the proposed Constitution Pipeline, a 121 mile span that will carry gas from the Pennsylvania frackfields, through New York, connecting to other proposed and existing systems, through to Nova Scotia.[v] Constitution is a greenway project. It does not follow an existing utility route, but instead will slice through 1000 acres of interior forests. EPA estimates that such forests carry 700 trees per acre, with a total of at least 700,000 trees in this pipeline alone. Temperate forests such as these have the capacity to absorb about one half the amount of carbon as their rainforest counterparts. The planned destruction of trees in NY/Pennsylvania woodlands for proposed pipelines adds to other local negative environmental impacts, such as the production of volatile organic compounds and increased potential for catastrophic flooding on denuded steep slopes.  Understanding this puts the struggle on credible global terms: cutting forests to build methane-leaking pipelines and compressor stations not only adds more GHGs into the atmosphere but removes the one environmental service that might offset some of it– trees. According to Peter Reich, “If forest “scrubbing of CO2” declines while release of CO2 remains stable or grows, the “braking” effect of the world’s forests on the pace of climate change will grow weaker, perhaps disappearing entirely.” [vi]


Source: Compressor Free Franklin

Global representatives are meeting in Paris to decide the environmental future of the world.[vii] Technological solutions to climate change will be highlighted, though none of these new and costly strategies are a long term tested commodity. But there is a clear pathway out, as the world begins to pay to keep forests standing with carbon offsets as a “market” mechanism.   Knowing what we know now, this becomes the time to say no to all possible threats to forests. Forest destruction should be conceptualized as planet destruction, everywhere that trees grow. Reforestation should be viewed as salvation. Even small deforestation efforts need to be curtailed because of the symbolic power– prohibition should be across the board, so there are no ways to make acceptable exceptions. This will be a big adjustment, but nothing like what will happen if we don’t.

[i] http://www.northjersey.com/news/gas-pipeline-left-a-barren-swath-through-parks-and-forests-of-north-jersey-1.734639

[ii] http://www.ferc.gov/industries/gas/indus-act/pipelines/pending-projects.asp

[iii] http://www.stopthepipeline.org/; http://constitutionpipeline.com/

[iv] http://theconversation.com/explainer-how-much-carbon-can-the-worlds-forests-absorb-14816

[v] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-mckibben-paris-un-climate-conference-20151129-story.html

[vi] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/environment/forests/4690299/Trees-absorb-a-fifth-of-carbon-emissions-pumped-out-by-humans.html

[vii] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/8708979/Worlds-forests-absorb-almost-40-per-cent-of-man-made-CO2.html

Fieldwork Reflections

By: Peggy F. Barlett, Emory University (pbarlett@emory.edu)
Culture and Agriculture, Summer 2014

I was recently reminiscing in an “Anthropology of Sustainable Development” class about how movement at night in the farming village where I did my dissertation in Costa Rica was constrained by the phases of the moon. An invitation to stay and have a snack at a home where we were enjoying a chat might be couched with the advice, “Don’t worry—there’ll be a moon tonight.”

Experiencing the rhythm of life by the seasons of the natural world was a sharp contrast with my urban life as a graduate student at Columbia in New York City. Nor were moonlight rambles a part of my suburban upbringing. But it was a rhythm for which I was deeply grateful, and I soaked up those special walks where the stars and moon hung closely above my head and the paths through the community were eerily visible.

Sharing the lives of farming peoples has always been a deeply important experience for me. I remember talking with my Costa Rican colleague, Francisco Escobar, about the political struggles and programmatic challenges of my new job at Emory in Atlanta, and he said, “Peggy, you need to get back to fieldwork!” He was right. I had become so focused on helping to build our new anthropology department, on university meetings and hiring committees, that I was quietly going deaf to the urgent issues and vibrant changes among agricultural development projects and rural populations. Fieldwork not only reveals important insights that we seek to share in our work, but it can sometimes keep us grounded in the truly significant issues.

Fieldwork in Dodge County, Georgia, brought home the way farmers have an emotional relationship to nature. “Being outdoors” and “seeing things grow” are expressed by all ages of farmers as strong attractions of the farm life, pleasures that partially offset the high risk, hard work, and sometimes low return. Hearing birds sing, smelling newly-plowed soil in spring, and “seeing the wonders of nature” were experiences emphasized by farm men and women alike. “You are not really living until you walk across a field in late October, hearing the combine harvesting the corn, seeing the leaves turn color, and feeling the cool air,” said one large-scale farmer. As my colleague, Peter Brown, noted, agriculture is about “taming nature,” but it also requires “really living in it.”

Taming was especially visible in China in 1978, where I appreciated first-hand the massive ecological transformations that intensive agriculture has created. Part of that visit was a two-day train ride from north of Korea to the south, passing many eco-zones of Chinese farmland. Seeing the terraced fields and workers, villages and cities, canals and crops, I felt connected—if only at a distance—to the lives of people I could see through the train window.

Sharing those daily life-ways—walking on paths along a field or down a gravel road, feeling the webs of kinship and relationship that entwine a group of people—is a river of joy that runs beneath our anthropological theories, data tables, and stacks of ungraded papers. Central to our work are the opportunities to sit quietly with a woman in her kitchen and hear her hopes for her children or to hang around with a group of men who are taking a break, whether in a rice field on a steep mountain slope or beside a grain elevator.

The last two summers, my fieldwork has been mainly on the phone. As I have been involved in Emory’s efforts to rebuild a regional food system and purchase more local and sustainably-grown food, I have become focused on institutional change and the range of strategies used by university and college dining services to effect change. A series of conference calls with sustainable food scholars and campus leaders showed several distinct approaches to the problems of our current agro-food system. Some schools emphasize the experience of growing food, the hands-on education on campus farms that re-integrates the urban/suburban student with seasons and soil—and bugs—and hyper-fresh vegetables. Other schools emphasize new economic and social relationships with local food producers who supply their cafeterias. Part of their educational effort is to make those relationships more visible to the campus community, “putting the farmer’s face on the food.” Both strategies echo fieldwork experiences, kinesthetic and relational.

My fieldwork this summer will involve more such conversations, formal interviews, and I hope some campus visits. It will not be guided by the moon’s phases, nor will it involve mud or sunburn. But it will continue to be guided by the delight of sharing conversations with people on another path, in another place, and will continue to travel down that river of sacred connectedness that is an often-unacknowledged dimension of anthropological meaning.

Pinhookers and Tomateros (Tomato workers) in Southern Appalachia

By Mary Elizabeth Schmid, University of Kentucky (mary.beth.schmid@uky.edu)
9 July 2014

It’s foggy and cool with morning mountain air before the sun rises, and I am on the road. I seem to be alone on the highways except for a few white produce trucks I encounter at the interstate exits right before the entrance to the regional spot market in southern Appalachia. I pull up to the farmers market gate and little security shed, and then head straight through to the back left of the complex where the lights are on and the small farmers wholesale spot market is gearing up, already at only 4:00am. I am hoping to get a glimpse of pinhookers at work, buying from small-scale truck farmers before the rest of the buyers arrive.

Pinhooking is a practice that carries different meanings depending on the commodities and regions in question. Many people think of it as a term for small scale speculators in tobacco or racing horses, buy low and turn around to sell high. However, pinhooking seems to be commonly practiced with farm produce. Within the southern Appalachian context, “pinhookers” seem to be understood as a particular type of small-scale speculator. At this point in the research, I am trying to figure out what the regional consensus is (and if there is one) in terms of the particularities of pinhookers who peddle farm produce. I am told that they come to the spot markets early, before most of the sales begin and offer farmers a price to buy their produce in bulk even before the farmer knows the going rate that day. The pinhooker could then take that produce, break up the boxes and resell the produce in smaller amounts with a small mark-up. They could sell it on the side of the road—to you or me—or they could sell it to vendors at the same farmers market so that vendors could have a wider range of produce to sell. In either case, it appears as if those crops were grown by the farm enterprise that is now selling them.

According to a local commercial tomato grower, “Pinhookin’ is well… you ain’t doin’ nothing, you ain’t doing no labor, this is my opinion. You are just buying, getting it as cheap as you can off that farmer and then you are going to resell it like you are a farmer. Same thing with pinhooking with any commodity. That’s what we call pinhookin’. Like in a cattle market, your truck is driving in and you are fixing to sell your cattle on the market, pinhooker says I will give you X amount of dollars for those cows. You say well I wonder if I get that much at the sale… Then you can make a choice: unload your whole load and then you are back to the farm. It’s been going on for 100s of years”.

Wholesale produce boxes at regional spot market

Wholesale produce boxes at regional spot market

At the spot market, there is a large red metal structure where produce and a variety of other commodities line the center on display. Tall metal stalls stand on either side of this central structure with about three traffic lanes on each side separating the edge of the center market from the outside small dealer wholesale stalls. The small produce dealers (often farmers themselves) back their trucks into these stalls and set up their produce displays, picking out the best looking produce packed in boxes and baskets to line up along the front of their stalls. There are about twelve small wholesale dealer stalls set-up with about two to three persons per stall—some of whom seem to be related, as married couples, and others as parent-child teams. A fourth of these are operated by Latino men and women and the rest by EuroAmerican men and women. They all seem to range in age from early thirties to mid-sixties and they all wear similar clothing: men in baseball hats, t-shirts, jeans or shorts and boots and the women in t-shirts, jeans or shorts and tennis shoes. Together these dealers offer a variety of produce—baskets and crates of green apples, bright yellow squash, green beans, eggplants, red lettuce bunches, zucchini, and boxes of red plump tomatoes, and watermelons.

By 5:00 am, this section of the spot market is in full swing. The traffic, the action, the commerce—at this point in the morning—is on this side of the market, outside the central market. The retail market upfront is completely dark. White produce vans and personal trucks with extra high caps start rolling in; these must be the buyers. License plates are from Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia and even Mississippi. As buyers in white vans and trucks slowly drive by to “eye-ball” the produce, a waft of diesel fuel looms, and the sound of running motors begins to drown out the hum of the interstate and the morning birds. Buyers seem to circle around the market and then come back to the stands they are interested in. “Sometimes he buys, sometimes, he don’t,” one produce vendor remarks to his neighbor vendors after an over-sized red Dodge Ram truck slowly rolls by. When buyers do stop, they ask vendors with some familiarity, “what you got this morning?”

Early morning commerce at regional spot market

Early morning commerce at regional spot market

Some of the produce vendors are buyers too. One vendor, seated in a lawn chair behind his produce, hollers “20, we’ll do 23 if you do a palate” at a middle aged woman who is walking around with a cell phone, sporting all pink and black lifting gloves. She declines his offer: “You don’t have enough for me. I need a truck bed of large”. Later on in the morning I see her roll by on a fork lift. I watch as one middle aged bearded man in a baseball hat, jean overalls, and a white t-shirt—with a cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth—slowly walks about, eyeing the produce baskets. He disappears to the other side of the market with a to-go coffee cup and comes back with two baskets of peaches and hands them to the middle aged woman he arrived with, who is standing at the end of their produce truck. The produce truck’s gate is open and she sets up the peaches to sell along with the produce baskets she brought—presumably from their farm. Now these baskets of peaches from the other side of the market are part of this couple’s yellow squash and zucchini basket display. Vendors slowly but surely diversify their produce display throughout the hour, offering customers a wider selection. I wonder: is this considered pinhooking? Did I miss the real pinhookers who come at the start of the morning, maybe before 4:00 am? Do you have to buy out whole truckloads to be considered a real pinhooker in this region? Or is this how it works—the produce from various farms is spread around different produce stands, slowly and quietly?

What seems to be a converted food truck with a trailer hitched to the back, rolls around the market a few times. It has “Wyatt Free Range Produce Stand” spray painted on all sides of the truck. The driver—a EuroAmerican man who appears to be in his mid-thirties—circles the market and the second time around he pulls over to the side and gets out. One of the older men selling vegetables talks to him as if he knows him. He opens up the cardboard tomato boxes and walks a bit, from stand to stand, and then begins to negotiate the prices with various vendors. They help him load the produce boxes into his truck, which is filling up. I wonder again: does this count as pinhooking if he takes these back to a produce stand in another market or on the side of the road?

By 5:45 am, the sky begins to lighten to a soft dark blue and the light fog begins to burn off. I thought for a moment I would ask about pinhookin’ but it seems like it may be a sensitive, even taboo, topic and I realized that simply showing up in plaid, jeans, boots and a baseball cap will not legitimize my questions. I will have to come back next time with a vendor, and sit on that side of the stall to begin to understand what pinhookin’ means to produce industry actors in southern Appalachia.

Tomato variety at roadside stand

Tomato variety at roadside market

This fieldwork experience did allow for some new insights—and most importantly, new questions. This is especially important at this stage in my research project as part of my preliminary research. I will enter the field in 2015 to conduct a year of dissertation research. My current research does not primarily focus on spot markets, though wholesale markets do play a role in the socio-economic processes I am investigating. My dissertation research will explore binational MX-US families and their agricultural enterprises in the Mexican Bajío and southern Appalachia. Family enterprises are important to regional spot markets as both produce vendors and buyers. These binational families engage primarily in the tomato industry and for this reason, I pay particular attention to tomateros (tomato workers) who specialize in tomato production-distribution and also work in warm season crops that compliment tomato cultivation. This summer I am exploring the produce industry in southern Appalachia to get a grasp on the complex social, production-distribution systems that tomateros participate in and help shape. Pinhooking and harvest labor contracting are significant economic practices that link steps in this regional, produce supply chain and help channel produce to various markets.

Groups of tomateros (tomato workers) work as subcontracted harvesting crews, stopping at spots along the East Coast migrant stream—from Florida to Maine—to harvest warm season crops. These crews are managed by a crew leader (also known as a farm labor contractor or troquero) and are often recruited through family relations and social networks. As David Griffith and Ed Kissam point out since the 1980s farm labor contracting has become a family tradition with children acting as apprentices to their parents—or to other relatives like uncles and occasionally aunts (1995:146). Although farmworkers are a diverse occupational group, crews reflect the Mexicanization of much of the agricultural labor force in the U.S., especially in terms of perishable crops (Griffith 2000). With anti-immigration legislation like 287g spreading through the U.S. South, farmers in some states report finding themselves without enough workers when peak harvest season arrives and are stuck watching their crops rot in the fields, as Luque and his colleagues found in Georgia (Luque et al. 2013).

Commercial tomato field in southern Appalachia before staking phase

Commercial tomato field in southern Appalachia before staking phase

Fields being used for commercial production of staked tomatoes

Fields being used for commercial production of staked tomatoes

Harvest labor is often the most expensive input for vegetable production and accessing labor at precisely the right point in the season is crucial for good yields and profits (Ortiz et al. 2013). For these reasons amongst others, commercial growers are subcontracting harvesting crews like these tomatero crews. Crew leaders are paid to manage the farmworkers who harvest the field—a skill that requires knowledge for picking the mature green tomatoes at the exact right phase of ripening for shipment and requires a quick pace to make a living since it’s often a piece rate pay system. Crew leaders are paid to manage the harvesting process or they buy the tomatoes still on the vine from the grower. In the latter case, after paying the grower, the crew leaders pay their crews to harvest the tomatoes and pack them into boxes in the field. Since tomatoes naturally emit ethanol, they turn red in the boxes and can then be sold directly as red tomatoes at markets like the spot market described above or they can be sold to other tomato buyers, such as processing facilities or tomato brokers.

Produce packing house

Produce packing house

In the tomato industry in Florida, the practice of “pinhooking” is understood differently than in the southern Appalachia context. In Florida, it is considered a “secondary harvest operation that entails independent contractors’ buying the last of the tomatoes in the fields, harvesting them primarily with family labor or their own crews, using their own small trucks and boxes and then selling them by the box in open markets in Immokalee or elsewhere” (Griffith and Kissam 1995:55). According to the industry actors I’ve spoken with in southern Appalachia, this type of work is called “gleaning”. Examples like this one show how social meanings vary and that variability offers insights into how certain groups conceptualize and organize their economic identities and livelihood activities. Pinhookers in Florida seem to be an efficient piece of the tomato production system; however, agri-business tomato corporations see them as competition and paint them as a threat (Griffith and Kissam 1995). Scholars like David Griffith and Ed Kissam see pinhooking as an entrepreneurial endeavor (1995), a skilled practice (Griffith 2000). As Miriam Wells has argued with her studies of sharecropping and “crop sharing” in California, the variability of agricultural production systems and their social organization need to continue to be studied (1987). Studies of practices like pinhooking and labor contracting reveal the variability of these systems and in doing so, may be able to unravel the social complexities of larger globalizing processes.

MX-US license plate

MX-US license plate

Farming families and communities negotiate changing production, distribution and consumption conditions every day, making decisions that shape their lives, their consumers, their communities and communities around the world—linked through agricultural commodities. Ann Kingsolver points to these complexities in the case of tobacco in Kentucky as a “global crop” to reveal the ways that small rural towns, and the residents who make them tick, are truly part of a “global/local community”—places which have been, and continue to be, linked to larger globalizing processes that shape livelihoods and futures (2011). While most people in the U.S. hear about commercial fresh market tomato production in California, Florida, and—since NAFTA—western Mexico, actors in southern Appalachia are also directly influencing the tomato industry. As a fifth generation farmer in southern Appalachia tells me, tomatoes not only represent an important agricultural commodity for the region, but they also carry significant local cultural weight. People take pride in their tomatoes and “tomato people” in this region will continue to influence the industry on a global scale. This pride and the complexities of the tomato industry are manifest in the regional spot market described above and the actors that allow for the market to operate.

As we enter July—the start of the tomato harvest season—and the highways begin to fill up with cars with Florida license plates driven by tourists, “snow birds” headed to their second homes and migrant farm working families, the question becomes: who are the “tomato people” of southern Appalachia and how are their livelihoods (and the industry as a whole) changing in light of the opportunities that globalizing forces allow for and the constraints that they impose?


Works Cited
Griffith, David.  2000. Work and Immigration: Winter Vegetable Production in South Florida. In Poverty or Development: Global Restructuring and Regional Transformations in the U.S. South and the Mexican South. Richard Tardanico and Mark B. Rosenberg, eds. Pp. 139-178. New York and London: Routledge.

Griffith, David and Ed Kissam. 1995. Working poor: Farmworkers in the United States. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.

Kingsolver, Ann E. 2011. Tobacco Town Futures: Global Encounters in Rural Kentucky. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

Luque, John S. Angel Bowers, Ahmed Kabore, and Rick Stewart. 2013. Who will pick Georgia’s Vidalia Onions A Text-Driven Content Analysis of Newspaper Coverage on Georgia’s 2011 Immigration Law. Human Organization 72(1) :31-

Ortiz, Sutti, Susana Aparicio and Nidia Tadeo. 2013. Dynamics of Harvest Subcontracting: The Roles Played by Labour Contractors. Journal  of Agrarian Change 13(4): 488-519.

Wells, Miriam J. 1987. Sharecropping in the United States: A Political Economy Perspective. In Farm Work and Fieldwork: American Agriculture in Anthropological Perspective. Chibnik, Michael ed. Pp. 211-243. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.




Doing the ‘work’ of fieldwork with community gardeners in Michigan

By Megan Maurer, University of Kentucky (mlma223@g.uky.edu)

2 July 2014

It’s 8am and the city is quiet except for the intermittent roar of commuter traffic down the main street. Everyone drives to work, and the sidewalks will remain empty until lunchtime, when a handful of workers will pop into the few restaurants scattered between vacant storefronts. The sun is peeping out from behind the clouds and a light haze threatens a hot day here in Michigan. I make my way quickly on foot through a residential neighborhood toward a high-rise apartment building, trying hard not to be late again. This morning I’m meeting folks at the Preston Street Apartments in order to help out with their ongoing community garden improvement project, something I’ve been doing a couple days a week for the past month or so. As I arrive, the garden steward rises from a bench, greets me and explains her goals for the day. She mostly needs me to transport compost from the pile by the dumpster in the parking lot over to the garden where she’s building mounded beds, about 100 yards distance. I get to work, moving slowly as the day heats up. Many people come out to the garden as the morning wears on–to say hi, to offer advice, to help, or just to enjoy being outside–and I take advantage of each visitor to stop and chat.

I’m in this small city in Michigan studying the relationship between community gardening and urban citizenship (Holston & Appadurai 1996). Here in the Rust Belt, where waves of deindustrialization and economic recession have severely limited state and city governments’ ability to provide essential services, urban gardens have grown in popularity as a way for residents to meet material needs, reclaim urban space, and shape the future of their cities (White 2011). While the impacts of urban gardening on food security and nutrition have been investigated (Alaimo 2008), little is known about how gardeners’ efforts to alter the urban landscape impact their cities’ futures. So I ask whether gardeners experience greater civic engagement and political determination, and if so, what these experiences look like. This entails spending a lot of time with gardeners, figuring out what they want the future of their neighborhoods and city to look like, and how they envision getting from here to there. About half my fieldwork is going to various social, civic, and political functions, like farmers’ markets, community organizing meetings, and city council hearings. The other half though, is working alongside gardeners, pulling weeds, moving compost, and planting tomatoes.

The Preston Street Apartments Community Garden, as viewed from outside the building. The in-ground portion of the garden is past the tables to the left. This photo was taken after the first phase of the garden improvement project was completed. The paving stone and all the tables to the left of the sidewalk are new additions.

The Preston Street Apartments Community Garden, as viewed from outside the building. The in-ground portion of the garden is past the tables to the left. This photo was taken after the first phase of the garden improvement project was completed. The paving stone and all the tables to the left of the sidewalk are new additions.

One of the original universal access table beds, with a fresh coat of paint and some communal herbs. Each gardener is assigned a section of in-ground garden or 1-2 table beds. A couple of beds though, are reserved for communal plants, like herbs and flowers.

One of the original universal access table beds, with a fresh coat of paint and some communal herbs. Each gardener is assigned a section of in-ground garden or 1-2 table beds. A couple of beds though, are reserved for communal plants, like herbs and flowers.

My research plan included garden work as a key form of participant observation, as I hoped that in exchange for volunteer labor I would have an opportunity to get to know people. I had also hoped that by working alongside community gardeners, I would be able to make a meaningful contribution to their gardens. So far this strategy seems to be working. Last month I spent a couple hours in one community garden helping plant collard greens and tomatoes for a free neighborhood youth camp. While another gardener and I hoed rows together, I learned how thirty years of shifting employment and home-ownership patterns have undermined the ways her neighborhood comes together to care for one another. She hopes the community garden can help repair some of this damage.

Sharing in the work of building and maintaining gardens has indeed been an ethnographic goldmine. It has also been an opportunity to experience how participant observation (or perhaps more aptly, observant participation) produces anthropological knowledge while simultaneously creating some of anthropology’s core ethical dilemmas. I have found that the personal relationships and lived experiences that make for information-rich fieldwork bring with them a set of responsibilities I worry I may not successfully fulfill.

The ethnographer building table beds at the Preston Street Apartments during a community workday in early May. Over a dozen volunteers from the apartment complex and throughout the city came together to build six new universally accessible table beds.

The ethnographer building table beds at the Preston Street Apartments during a community workday in early May. Over a dozen volunteers from the apartment complex and throughout the city came together to build six new universally accessible table beds.

One of the new universally accessible table beds. Anyone can access these beds through standing or sitting. Tables are set high enough off the ground that a motorized wheelchair can be maneuvered underneath.

One of the new universally accessible table beds. Anyone can access these beds through standing or sitting. Tables are set high enough off the ground that a motorized wheelchair can be maneuvered underneath.

There are over a dozen community gardens in this city, so to narrow my focus I’m conducting intensive case studies with four of them. Three of these case study gardens are neighborhood based, with an array of participants. The fourth though, is different. It’s attached to an apartment building that is HUD designated for low-income seniors and those with physical disabilities–the Preston Street Apartments. For seven years the residents have maintained a 20’x40’ in-ground garden, as well as a string of raised and table beds designed for those with limited mobility. It’s a pretty impressive feat for anyone, particularly those typically labeled “low-resource.” I was excited to learn more about their work when I approached them in February to participate in my study. They warmly invited me to their morning coffee hour, hosted Monday-Friday, 8-10am, as a fundraiser for the garden. I arrived one morning as instructed. The garden stewards greeted me at the door and checked me in at the office. We walked down a hallway and into the community room where a small kitchen hosted the coffee and baked goods. Sitting down at one end of a long row of fold up tables and stacking chairs, where a small knot of gardeners waited, I began my usual round of opening questions regarding the history and management of the garden. Those attending our little group interview passed quickly over these specifics though. They had a vision for the future of their garden, and they wanted to share it. I didn’t even have to ask. More and more of their members had mobility constraints, they said, and maintaining the large in-ground garden was getting increasingly difficult. They wanted to pave half of it and build more universally accessible raised and table beds. They’d been raising money through bingo nights and coffee hours for the project. And they wanted to know if I could help.

I started my graduate program in cultural anthropology after working in community garden organizing in Michigan for two years. I believed that there were some critical challenges facing community gardens as a tool for social change, and an anthropological approach might help garden organizers, supporters, and participants navigate them. While my doctoral project grapples with issues about the future of cities and civic life in the US, and the nature of human agency in shaping these futures, it was important to me from the start that I also contribute in a substantive way to the work of community gardeners and their supporters. So I leapt inwardly a little at the chance to be more than just an extra set of hands. My prior professional experience meant I had a real ability to be of use in this instance. I said, “Yes, I’ll help.” My intention was to connect these gardeners with the network of people and resources to which I had access. One of their primary challenges was that they didn’t know anyone who could help them acquire resources and volunteer labor. I knew lots of people and organizations that could provide just that. I would make the introductions and then nurture the relationships until they could continue without me.

I went home that day smiling to myself, and emailed former colleagues and my contacts at local organizations. Representatives came to coffee hour meetings, to-do lists were made, and regular bi-weekly “garden club” meetings instated for the sake of planning. However, relationships struggled to form, and I found myself gradually becoming less of a networker and more of an organizer, spending less time getting people together at the table, and more time helping the gardeners track down resources like grants and volunteers for themselves. And then I was building garden beds, moving yards of compost, and laying down paving stones. It was about that time I realized that somewhere along the way the line between observer and participant had gotten pretty blurry. Garden organizing meetings didn’t happen without me, people contacted me about volunteering, and I started caring whether people took up my suggestions or not. I had a stake in the outcome of this garden improvement project, vested in time, sweat, and personal relationships. I began to see myself, and be treated like, a member of the community.

The Preston Street Apartments Community Garden, with the building in the background. You can see the park-like aesthetic the management company strives for, and how the garden disrupts this landscape.

The Preston Street Apartments Community Garden, with the building in the background. You can see the park-like aesthetic the management company strives for, and how the garden disrupts this landscape.

All of the building supplies, tools, and other garden miscellanea are carefully piled in one end of the garden, next to the compost bins. This is an attempt to minimize the perceived messiness of the garden and avoid accusations of looking “hillbilly.”

All of the building supplies, tools, and other garden miscellanea are carefully piled in one end of the garden, next to the compost bins. This is an attempt to minimize the perceived messiness of the garden and avoid accusations of looking “hillbilly.”

By being an active member of the team that designed and implemented the Preston Street Community Garden improvement project, I gained a level of insight into the process that I doubt I would have gotten any other way. It was through this participation that I began to see how the complex interplay between garden aesthetics and class (cf. Rotenberg 1999) impacted the ways gardeners’ used urban land. For the Preston Street gardeners, a continuing concern was that the garden not look messy, with tools or other materials lying around. As we planned and built beds together, the stewards consistently devoted time to making sure everything had a proper place, materials were neatly stacked and covered with a tarp, and that all small supplies were taken back inside. At first I didn’t really understand why this was so important, but then one day someone jokingly described the potential messiness as “the hillbilly look.” During the mid-twentieth century, many people from Appalachia migrated to Michigan to work in automobile or wartime manufacturing. These migrants were often labeled hillbillies and stigmatized for an array of differences, such as leaving stuff lie about the yard and keeping chickens. Hillbilly became, and remains, an important class distinction in Michigan, denoting white residents who do not conform socially and/or economically to working-class white norms (Hartigan 1999). By maintaining a large garden, Preston Street gardeners disrupted expectations about land use from the apartment management and their neighbors. While generally the garden was viewed positively, policing the aesthetics so as to avoid “the hillbilly look” was seen as a necessary step for maintaining that support.

This insight, afforded by hours of shared labor and concern for the garden, has been highly valuable to my ethnographic project. It has helped me better understand how Preston Street gardeners perceive and participate in relationships of class. It has also alerted me to the ways aesthetics, class relationships, and urban land use converge in other community gardens throughout the city. However, the level of participation that has made me privy to Preston Street gardeners’ concerns about being perceived as hillbillies has also entangled me in a web of community relationships, with all their concomitant benefits and responsibilities. In exchange for the wealth of information I gather as a community member, I am also expected to continue to assist this project and maintain relationships with outside supporters on the gardeners’ behalf. This has forced me to confront the reality that as a graduate student and aspiring professional, I may very well be unable to fulfill these obligations.

My decision to participate in the garden improvement project was motivated by my desire to be an “engaged” ethnographer, one who uses their position and its inherent privileges to support the communities with which they work (Low & Merry 2010). In so doing I overlooked another privilege of the ethnographer–that I can, and likely will, leave this community, at least physically. I am two-thirds of the way through my fieldwork here, and will be moving back South when I am through. While I intend to stay in touch with the gardeners here, and return to visit if not continue research, I’ve begun to contemplate an exit strategy. The Preston Street garden improvement project has mostly wrapped up. We didn’t quite reach the original vision, but there is increased universal access and some solid goals for next year. We’re working with a local organization, hoping they can take over some of the volunteer coordination and grant writing I had done–the dream of relationship-building lives on. I am also thinking about what it means to be a member of this community while being physically absent, how I can continue to support their work and reciprocate for the inclusions and insights they have given me while being far away. Finally, I am reconsidering what engagement looks like for me, in this fieldsite. Instead of seeing my engagement as an exchange of information for labor, I am now considering how I can embed the process of relationship building, with me and with others, into the ways I conduct ethnographic research itself.

About the Author: Megan Maurer is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of Kentucky. She would like to acknowledge the National Science Foundation and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for funding her dissertation research, “Growing Change? Community Gardens & Urban Citizenship in Michigan.”

Works Cited

Alaimo, Katherine, Elizabeth Packnett, Richard Miles, and Daniel Kruger. 2008. Fruit and Vegetable Intake among Urban Community Gardeners. Journal of Nutrition, Education, and Behavior 40(2):94-101

Hartigan, John, Jr. 1999. Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Holston, James and Arjun Appadurai. 1996. Cities and Citizenship. Public Culture 8:187-204.

Low, Setha and Sally Engle Merry. 2010. Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas: An Introduction to Supplement 2. Current Anthropology 51(S2):S203-S226.

Rotenberg, Robert. 1999. Landscape and Power in Vienna: Gardens of Discovery. In Theorizing the City: The New Urban Anthropology Reader. Setha M. Low, ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

White, Monica M. 2011. D-Town Farm: African American Resistance To Food Insecurity and the Transformation of Detroit. Environmental Practice 13(4):406-417.


That Wasn’t Part of the Plan: Making Sense of a Land Dispute in Ghana

By Jessica Ham, University of Georgia (jessham@uga.edu)

25 June 2014

Like most graduate students headed off to the field after years of configuring and reconfiguring theory and method on paper, I walked into my field site like my research plan was an established equation with no room for interloping variables. This, of course, is a ridiculous stance for any empirically based researcher. Not only is it inevitable that we will have to go off script, but the unscripted parts of fieldwork can be incredibly telling. In this segment of Notes from the Field I explore how I am starting to make sense of my data by paying attention to land, a factor that was not on my research agenda, but that as an asset underscoring access to production and economic independence, is an interloping variable important for interpreting household decision making processes and experiences of distress.

Land is plentiful in the Upper West, but the purpose of land is changing and location is increasingly important

Land is plentiful in the Upper West, but the purpose of land is changing and location is increasingly important

My ongoing dissertation pursuit investigates the relationship between food insecurity and mental health as well as any potentially negative effects of this relationship in a small-scale agricultural society in the Upper West Region of Ghana. On the day that I moved to my field site, I received my first clue that land is a variable to consider in this relationship. When I arrived to greet the chief, there was an intense meeting occurring amongst a group of the community elders who had gathered to talk with the traditional land authority. As I greeted the elders and was welcomed into the community, I learned that they were discussing how to handle an ongoing land dispute with a neighboring community that was becoming quite predatory.

At the outset, this dimension of land in dispute didn’t seem to factor into my research agenda and I did not pursue it. I was fully prepared to pay attention to agricultural production, a primary livelihood for most of the residents, but I saw a land dispute as a tangential factor since no land had actually changed hands and there was not a growing landless population. As part of a region that the G8 calls Africa’s “Sleeping Giant”, I was set to look for land grabs instigated by multi-national agricultural firms. I was not prepared to think about domestic land grabs nor what might be promoting such grabs (World Bank 2009).

Four months later, the land dispute flared again with the occurrence of minor acts of violence that instigated police and military patrols. With the tension gaining acknowledgement from the local authorities, I started taking the dispute seriously too, inquiring as to how the dispute was influencing people’s opinions about land as well as their livelihood management strategies. Even with minimal prodding, it’s not difficult to see how a changing environmental and economic context is leading to changing perceptions of the value of land, the value of agriculture, and the varied ways to achieve a secure foothold as a new context unfolds.

Historically and contemporarily, the Upper West is a region largely removed from the extractive industries (gold, cocoa and increasingly oil and gas) that generate Ghanaian GDP and has not been a priority for state led economic or social development. The Upper West remains a region where small-scale production of yam, millet, maize, and cowpea is the primary subsistence activity alongside the production of groundnuts for the market. However, changing rainfall patterns and increasingly poor soil conditions are constraining farmer capability. Where once farmers were able to produce enough food for the household as well as for sale, now yields often do not sustain many households beyond 5 months. Where once farmers could produce enough food on a small piece of land with low input costs, now successful farming requires access to large amounts of land and the ability to pay for tractors or labor to clear the land as well as chemical fertilizers that enhance yield.

The traditional hoe remains a tool in all households

The traditional hoe remains a tool in all households

Against this stagnating agro-ecological and rural economic setting of the rural Upper West, Wa, the regional capital, is an expanding urban center. This growth is driven primarily by a university that attracts a large student body in need of food and housing. Aside from the entrepreneurial activity that works to meet this demand, employment opportunities in Wa are limited to public sector jobs that require formal educational attainment. The jobs available to the un-educated populations on the perimeter of Wa who are trying to integrate into this expanding economy are limited to security guard positions and day labor in the construction business where wages average between $4 and $8 a day.

In Wa, land prices have escalated greatly to meet the demand for student rentals. People in Wa are turning to the peripheral regions for their own housing as well as for building student rentals. The community that is instigating the land disputes has already sold a significant portion of its land to these land seekers as it is the first community on the main road heading west out of Wa. As was told to me by a native of this community, residents here have given up on farming, a venture that is seen as too risky in this increasingly variable agro-ecological context. Members of this community are eager to part with land for high prices and report confidence in the daily wage labor sector for income to sustain their households. This community also happens to be part of the royal family in Wa, ensuring that it is very closely integrated into the traditional legal system that still holds sway in legal proceedings. This community claims to be the rightful owners of all of the lands extending west beyond Wa because it is the original settling community. With such traditional rights declared, it’s not difficult to see how the community would feel brazen enough to sell its productive land when they can ultimately place claim on the productive land they see as only being lent out to others.

My field site is a community that was settled approximately 100 years ago by people who are not connected to the royal family in Wa. Though the community members have used the same land and passed it down for a century, they can still be considered settlers. Thus, they are scrambling to leverage their own sense of power by obtaining land titles from the government ordained Lands Commission. As the vulnerable community in the equation, it’s not surprising that they don’t seem to share the same opinion of agriculture as a futile pursuit. Though many of the men take part in the construction sector in Wa, all of the households in my sample still engage in food production at a subsistence level. Most produce enough maize to feed the family for at least half of the year and many grow groundnuts in anticipation of a yield that will earn enough money to cover next year’s cost of agricultural inputs. Even though agriculture is an increasingly challenging livelihood, it’s not something that people speak of giving up on. Farmers here speak of the desire to continue to farm the land because the ability to produce food is important to the household budget. If food can be produced then income can be used on other household needs. This speaks to the overarching perception of the community as existing in a precarious economic context. Food prices are high in relation to income earning opportunities and as an urban center expands, housing prices, too, are reaching levels unattainable by the lower classes. Retaining rights to land for food and housing is therefore increasingly important. While the prevailing attitude is one that sees ongoing farming practice as important for home consumption, it is also articulated that it is important to continue to farm to demonstrate that the land is being used well so that the neighboring community doesn’t have evidence of land being abused or ignored.

Sorghum is still an important crop for the regional beer. Here the sorghum begins the fermentation process

Sorghum is still an important crop for the regional beer. Here the sorghum begins the fermentation process

Women sow a groundnut farm in early June

Women sow a groundnut farm in early June

Mounds housing the growing yam tubers

Mounds housing the growing yam tubers

Maize remains the most important cereal for the region and is one that farmer emphasize the most

Maize remains the most important cereal for the region and is one that farmer emphasize the most

An interview with a man who sells his labor to the construction sector in Wa and works as an independent carpenter provides insight into how land is a mediating variable in the food insecurity and mental health relationship I pursue. In March his monthly income was approximately $200. This income was spent largely on materials for the construction of a new concrete block house. Despite a relatively high monthly income, he reported spending only a fraction of the income on food and his food insecurity score is significantly higher than the average score for the entire sample. He said that worries over food had troubled him so much in the past month that he suffered from worry sickness, a context specific illness with symptoms that parallel anxiety or mood disorders. So while he technically had enough money to support his household’s food needs, he prioritized the construction of a new concrete block house that not only places a more permanent claim over the land he uses, but provides the potential for earning income through the rental of the house.

Example of the concrete block structures that residents at my field site are striving to build

Example of the concrete block structures that residents at my field site are striving to build

This man’s dispersal of income demonstrates how immediate need and future stability are negotiated and how land is a common denominator. Though food is an immediate need that many households contend to meet, it is not the only need, nor necessarily the most important need that households manage. The desire to invest in the future (through school fees for children) or concrete structures (that ensure future household stability, especially if rentable) is also relevant to how men and women perceive of their economic circumstances. These circumstances can initiate distressing management decisions that prioritize the future at the cost of meeting present needs. As Jane Guyer (1997) so states:
In anthropological terms, people are at one and the same time embedding their decisions in both short and long term frameworks, in which present consumption or expenditure decision express, confirm, or create a potential claim over the longer term. The optimal solution meets both sets of expectations and predictions (122).

This Ghanaian context could be easily proffered by economists as one where rural livelihoods are successfully “transformed” or absorbed by the process of urbanization. However, this is a context where coping with volatility remains the prevailing ethos. Day labor work in the construction business is already a piecemeal affair, and though the $4-$8 a day wages proffered by such work is better than wages earned in other activities, it is not so much that residents of my field site feel assured that they are able to feed, clothe, cover health care costs and educate their families through the reliance on this sole activity. Furthermore, when the construction business dries up (as it is sure to do once the market is saturated with new housing), men will once again be left with farming as a main livelihood opportunity.

The instability, however, is differentially managed by communities living 2 kilometers apart due to claims to land. Land has transitioned from a traditionally managed, communal means of production to a commodity that can be bought and sold in a system that is dually managed between a traditional and state legal system. For this particular Ghanaian context, holding onto land is increasingly important as is honing the social networks and knowledge that negotiate the land management system. Land is what enables people to produce their own food and to have a place to build a home. It is the asset that enables a small degree of independence from a volatile political economy that residents of my field site recognize as influential in their lives and don’t envision stabilizing anytime soon.

Signs of the times: Here a banner advertising festivities for the annual Farmer's Day sags and crumples below a banner advertising a "corporate dinner"

Signs of the times: Here a banner advertising festivities for the annual Farmer’s Day sags and crumples below a banner advertising a “corporate dinner”

Works Cited
Guyer, Jane 1997. Endowments and Assets: The anthropology of wealth and the economics of intrahousehold allocation In Intrahousehold resource allocation in developing countries: Methods, models, and policy, ed. L. Haddad, J.Hoddinott, and H. Alderman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press for the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The World Bank 2009. Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant: Prospects for Commercial Agriculture. Agriculture and Rural Development Notes 9: 1-4.

About the author:  Jessica is 2/3 of her way through fieldwork and nearing the completion of her PhD at the University of Georgia. She is blogging her way through fieldwork at: www.jessrham.blogspot.com



A Charcoal Shortage in Rural Haiti

By Andrew Tarter, University of Florida (andrew.tarter@ufl.edu)

18 June 2014

Kay gen moun (anyone home)? A voice stirs me from a temporary hypnosis brought on by the 80-degree-and-increasing heat of the morning. This cultural nicety of the rural Haitian countryside—singing out one’s arrival—alerts the residents of a house that someone is approaching. Conversely, someone nearing a house might yell onè (honor), to which the inhabitant of the house responds respè (respect), indicating that the visitor may advance. These warnings of approach give me enough time to quickly pull on my clothes, which I’ve mostly already shed in the oppressive early morning heat.

Wi, gen moun (Yes, someone’s here), I respond in Haitian Creole. Outside I encounter a friend who’s come to tell me that we are out of chabon (charcoal). ‘We’ includes three students from the Fakilte Etnoloji (Department of Ethnology) at the state university of Haiti (UEH), who are accompanying me as paid research collaborators on my doctoral dissertation research. ‘We’ also includes the three women that work to prepare our meals each day, and sometimes some of their children passing by on the way home from school. Our research team is situated in a remote section of the middle of the southern peninsula of rural Haiti. We are in one of the most tree-covered areas of a nation that the collective global imagination has portrayed as mostly devoid of trees.

A student from the Fakilte Etnoloji (Deparment of Ethnology) at the University of Haiti interviews charcoal makers on a hillside.

A student from the Fakilte Etnoloji (Deparment of Ethnology) at the University of Haiti interviews charcoal makers on a hillside.

The request for charcoal has come from the cooks. Oke, ou mèt di yo m pral chache l kounye la (Ok, you can tell them I’m going to go look for it now), I tell my friend, quickly preparing for what will inevitably be a long walk in the sun. Energy derived from burning charcoal is by far the principle energy consumed in Haiti, and the entire process of charcoal production employs a large number of Haitians. Our research indicates that for each bag of charcoal leaving this area of the countryside, between 5-7 jobs are created in the process of delivering the energy source to the capital. Charcoal also cooks the food that nourishes the four researchers that make up our research team—it is a necessary component for the continuation of our research.

A billow of smoke rises from a charcoal kiln filled with recently cut wood from the hillside behind.

A billow of smoke rises from a charcoal kiln filled with recently cut wood from the hillside behind.

In my pursuit of charcoal, I first walk away from the dusty limestone crossroads that demarcate the center of the village. I’m searching out an older woman I know, who makes a living achte chabon nan bwa (buying charcoal in the woods). Later she transports the bagged charcoal to the road, to sell to trucks that come some 3 hours from the capital city, serving as the nation’s principle energy distribution system.

Li pa la. W ap jwenn li si ou tounen tale, bò katrè (She’s not here. You’ll find her if you come back later, around 4 o’clock), the woman’s son tells me from the shade of their modest but immaculately clean front porch. I ask him if he can sell me a sack of charcoal, and although he normally would, he says he cannot this time, because he’s not sure if his mother might have already sold the bags stacked in the front yard to another person—yon kliyan (a charcoal client, from the capital). I suddenly recall earlier this week at the Monday market, when I passed a friend with at least 25 large bags of charcoal stacked up in a pyramid by the side of the road near his house. “They’re already sold,” he told me with a grin. I had thought it odd for charcoal, which can sometimes sit bagged by the road for a week or more, to sell so fast.

Many households in rural Haiti utilize land near the home for gardens, while nearby hillsides and mountains are managed for wood.

Many households in rural Haiti utilize land near the home for gardens, while nearby hillsides and mountains are managed for wood.

Unsuccessful but undeterred, I continue walking through the charcoalshed—a construct I have developed based on an analogy with the ecological concept of a watershed. In my research, I frame the predominant energy-supply network in Haiti as an autonomous, decentralized, farmer-regulated, participation-optional, ‘energyscape’, consisting of a series of separate charcoalsheds. Acknowledging other recent anthropological scholarship on energy (see Culture and Agriculture’s journal issue dedicated to energy—CAFE, Vol. 35, No. 1), I use the following working definition of an energyscape: a conceptual assemblage that considers (a) the contextual social, political, and ecological histories and current realities that shape specifiable areas, which are delineated by (b) the particular type of energy procured, (c) the current inhabitants of such areas, (d) the transportation and ultimate end location and consumers of the energy source, and (e) ultimately, as an anthropologist, the ideas and observable behaviors of producers, transporters, and consumers of various energy types within a delineated energyscape. Tying all these domains together in ways that are compelling and applicable to real-world challenges of the 21st century is the work of reemerging anthropology of energy. Indeed, how we conceptualize energy will have broad and wide-reaching implications in the age of the anthropocene.

A charcoalshed is simply a component of an energyscape, albeit one that tends to dominates the Haitian energyscape during this particular epoch in history. And like the watershed from where this analogy springs, a charcoalshed may be said to have its perimeter defined by those areas that are heavily influenced by the charcoal trade. By extension, the energyscape of the United States is marked by a series of different energy-procurement systems, some of which include oil, coal, wind, solar, biofuels, gas, nuclear, and others. In many cases, energyscapes extend beyond multiple geopolitical borders and boundaries, as is obvious with energy produced and consumed from sources such as petroleum.

A field cleared for agricultural production stands in stark relief against the managed woodlot it falls within.

A field cleared for agricultural production stands in stark relief against the managed woodlot it falls within.

In my continued pursuit of charcoal, I head next toward my neighbor’s house, a young man in his early 20s, who also makes a portion of his living buying and re-selling large sacks of charcoal for a minimal markup that yields the slightest margin of profit. He tells me straight out that not only does he not have any charcoal for sale, but that I won’t find any anywhere today. He explains that people are preoccupied with their gardens now that a little rain has been falling regularly. Charcoal-making is rarely the sole enterprise of a particular person for an extended period of time. Rather, it is one option among several, for making a living from increasingly degrading land. This week, the reality of seasonal rains trumps charcoal-making in the suite of livelihood activities available to farmers.

Stubbornly undeterred by my losing enterprise—yet increasingly aware that today’s afternoon meal is dependent on finding charcoal—I continue toward the crossroads of the village, and turn to slowly mount a steep hill rising to pass the Catholic church that overlooks the village. Behind the church I stop and inquire at one of the largest depots in the village, one that reliably has charcoal on hand. Pa gen chabon menm (There’s no charcoal at all), the proprietor tells me. I chuckle inwardly at the apparent contradiction of not being able to buy charcoal in the middle of a zone I have theoretically conceptualized as a charcoalshed. The owner explains that charcoal merchants from the capital have already bought up all the charcoal in the area because it’s slightly harder to find now. After a few moments of small talk, he mentions that there is charcoal just up the mountain, but that it isn’t bagged yet. He tells me that tomorrow he’ll help me find 2 bags of charcoal.

A research collaborator from the University of Haiti’s department of ethnology surveys a recently eliminated woodlot. If a farmer intends to continue harvesting wood for charcoal, the stumps are left to coppice; here, the stumps have been burnt to ensure they don’t return, indicating that this plot will likely be used for food production for several years to come.

A research collaborator from the University of Haiti’s department of ethnology surveys a recently eliminated woodlot. If a farmer intends to continue harvesting wood for charcoal, the stumps are left to coppice; here, the stumps have been burnt to ensure they don’t return, indicating that this plot will likely be used for food production for several years to come.

I go by the house where the anthropology/sociology students from the University of Haiti are staying, to tell one of the cooks that I was unable to find charcoal. She laughingly assures me that there’s enough charcoal to cook lunch today, but by tomorrow morning we must absolutely find a sack of charcoal, if there is to be a meal.

The next day I get up with the roosters. After a year of living in rural Haiti, I’ve fallen into the habit of rising and setting with the sun. There’s no electricity in the village, and things get pretty dark and quiet by about 8:30 at night. The sun has not yet crested the nearby hills as I walk again up to the depot behind the church. The man I spoke with yesterday directs me to follow another gentleman, whose face I recall well, but at that moment his name escapes my memory. We fall into chitchat as we head high up into the rolling foothills that characterize this part of Haiti’s southern peninsula. These rolling hills are eventually flanked by large mountain ranges at the eastern- and western-most part of the peninsula. These large ranges mark the country’s two national parks, while the rolling woodlands between them supply a large portion of the country’s daily energy needs through sustained charcoal production.

This research—funded by both the National Science Foundation and the Wenner Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research—has been investigating how the farmers in this area of Haiti have come to shape and manage these rolling tree-covered hills into a system of charcoal production that allows for the sustained and continued regrowth and harvesting of trees—a ‘domestication of energy’ in the form of wood trees (Murray 1987, 1991). As preliminary results from our land-based survey and ethnographic interviews begin to roll in, our research team has begun to view Haiti’s predominant energyscape—a system of decentralized charcoalsheds—as a mechanism that reconciles the requirements of a high urban fuel demand with basic rural livelihood needs. With data from our survey, we will produce a regression-based model which will attempt to predict the types of land on which farmers are likely to enter a sustained, managed woodlot land-use.

A managed woodlot which, combined with gardens of traditional food crops, create the quilt-like tapestry of land-use that blankets much of the southern peninsula of Haiti. These privately-owned and managed woodlots form the ‘charcoalsheds’ that populate the rural Haitian energyscape.

A managed woodlot which, combined with gardens of traditional food crops, create the quilt-like tapestry of land-use that blankets much of the southern peninsula of Haiti. These privately-owned and managed woodlots form the ‘charcoalsheds’ that populate the rural Haitian energyscape.

As we continue to hike higher in our quest to find charcoal, every foot of elevation gain yields an appreciable increase in horizon. Rural Haiti unfolds as far as the eye can see in every direction, revealing vast areas of a constructed landscape—the managed charcoal woodlots that make up this particular charcoalshed. But elevation increase is not the only spatial factor affecting the presence of managed woodlots. Our research demonstrates that a series of other spatial variables, such as the distance of a plot of land to a water source, the proximity to a major road, the plot slope, and the plot aspect all play a partial roll in determining the principal land use.

By and by, our meandering path reaches our destination: a recently denuded field, a spent charcoal kiln, a pile of the energy-source itself, and several bags of charcoal. Walking up to the pile of charcoal, my friend points out nearby trunks of the trees that were recently cut, noting that the coppicing pollards already springing from tree trunks mark the regrowth that will provide the next charcoal harvest in approximately 5 years from now. In the agroforestry literature the process in play has been described as ‘farmer managed natural regeneration’ (FMNR). Essentially, the farmer takes a series of steps to ensure a particular type of tree trunk is left behind and protected—a trunk that will coppice new woody material for future charcoal harvests.

An anthropology student from the state university in Haiti collects plot characteristics from within a managed woodlot.

An anthropology student from the state university in Haiti collects plot characteristics from within a managed woodlot.

I notice that in-between the newly cut trunks the farmer has planted pitimi (sorghum). My friend explains that the farmer will likely profit from at least 2 or 3 more crop rotations on this field, before the coppicing trees will form a low canopy, which will prevent further food-crops from growing here until the next time charcoal is harvested. Using twine derived from local sisal plants, my partner sews together the top of a charcoal bag, which he places on top of his head to carry out to the road where we’ll be able to transport it to the house.

Later that day, long after the charcoal has been delivered, and two members of the research team depart for an afternoon rotation of survey implementation, I reflect on the interrelatedness of so many different aspects of the charcoal trade. Seasonal changes, such as the onset of rain, causing food crops to grow, shift the focus of interest temporarily to the tending of these crops. This causes fewer people to enter into charcoal-making, resulting in a temporary local shortage of charcoal. This dilemma is exacerbated by merchants from the capital, who, sensing the shortage, make advanced reservations; they entering into binding contracts with their clients in the countryside by buying charcoal that has scarcely been produced. Later in the year, between September and January, when there is little to tend to in the garden, coupled with the pressing need to pay for the many associated school fees, farmers will produce an excess of charcoal, temporarily dropping the demand, and at times the price. Ultimately, the heart of this research seeks to understand how these temporal, spatial, and socioeconomic fluctuations shape and affect the management of woodlots—woodlots which populate charcoalsheds, which in turn form the backbone of the current Haitian energyscape, supplying most the country’s most immediate energy demands.

About the Author
Andrew Tarter is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, and an ecological anthropology doctoral student (ABD) at the University of Florida. Tarter’s research in Haiti is funded by both NSF and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Email: andrew.tarter@ufl.edu


Murray, Gerald F. 1987. The domestication of wood in Haiti: A case study in applied evolution. In Anthropological Praxis. R. Wulff and S. Fiske, eds. Pp. 223-240. Boulder: Westview Press.

Murray, Gerald F. 1991. The Tree Gardens of Haiti: From Extraction to Domestication. In Social forestry: Communal and private management strategies compared. D. Challinor and M. Hardt Frondorf, eds. Pp. 35-44. Washington, D.C.: School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.




Field School Immersion in West-Central Mexico

Elizabeth A. Olson, PhD (eolson@allegheny.edu)
Thomas Alvarez
Quinn Bergeon

Allegheny College, 520 North Main Street, Meadville, Pennsylvania, 16335

9 June 2014

For two weeks during May-June 2014, we ventured to Autlán de la Grana in Jalisco, Mexico, which is an entry point for the Sierra of Manantlán Biosphere Reserve (SMBR). Our group consists of two undergraduate students at Allegheny College, Thomas Alvarez (International Studies and Spanish double major) and Quinn Bergeon (Environmental Studies major, Global Health Studies minor), along with Assistant Professor of Global Health Studies and Environmental Studies, Liz Olson. We are at Olson’s fieldsite (where she has been active since 2007) completing a two week field school in anthropological methods and cultural immersion. This trip dovetails with two significant research events: the publication of Olson’s book (2014) on local knowledge and indigenous communities in this region, and the continuation of her most recent research project, “Conceptual Relationships Across Ethnomedical Systems in an Era of Globalization and Sustainability”. Olson’s past and current research projects in this region have provided a framework for the organization of this immersion field experience. In this report from the field, we reflect on the experience of conducting participant-observation from an interdisciplinary, undergraduate, student perspective and find that a seemingly mundane activity can teach us a great deal.

Map 1. Location of the Sierra of Manantlán Biosphere Reserve (SMBR) in Mexico.

Map 1. Location of the Sierra of Manantlán Biosphere Reserve (SMBR) in Mexico.

Map 2. Primary roads and towns in the Sierra of Manantlán Biosphere Reserve region.

Map 2. Primary roads and towns in the Sierra of Manantlán Biosphere Reserve region.

Pedagogical Approach
From the outset, the goal for this trip was to provide students with both the theoretical and historical context of international development with respect to natural resources, public health, and local community members in Mexico. As an immersion experience in the field, students were afforded a hands-on experience by participating in a number of community-based projects aimed at addressing environmental or social issues. Through this intensive two-week field experience, the students (Alvarez and Bergeon) learned a great deal about interdisciplinary collaborations which are pivotal to sustainable development programs in rural Mexico. Through the assigned readings and immersion experiences, Alvarez and Bergeon were able to apply the theoretical models related to community development to real-world situations.

Prior to embarking on our trip our group organized ourselves around a set of shared readings. The benefits of a cultural immersion field experience have been enumerated by many (Donnelly-Smith 2009; Gardner et al. 2009; Zamastil-Vondrova 2005), so we won’t reiterate the value of such a transformative experience here. However, we did find it was crucial for our team to organize ourselves as an immersion field experience that did not attempt to “solve” a community issue in the space of a few weeks (similar points have been made in regards to global health field schools, see for example Fischer 2013). For one of our group members this trip was their first experience abroad, and for each of the students this represented a unique opportunity to conduct participant-observation in the field. In order to do this we organized ourselves around a set of guidelines: (1) maintaining detailed notes on group readings; (2) writing in field journal daily; (3) establishing daily group meetings; and (4) participating in a local reading group with the text “Los Cuatro Acuerdos” (The Four Agreements, Ruiz 1997). Both students also completed the CITI training for Human Subjects Research in order to be tangentially involved in Olson’s ongoing research program.

While staying with a local host family, we organized a reading group to read and discussed the text “Los Cuatro Acuerdos” (Ruiz 1997). The group was an open invitation to Olson’s existing friends and colleagues in the Autlán area to participate in reading and discussion of the book. The expressed purpose of the group was to develop friendships, learn about some Toltec philosophies, and grow as individuals.

Each day, our group ventured to different towns and markets in this region to explore topics related to local culture, ideas about food systems, and the local health philosophies. During these experiences, we talked to local producers and included our impressions in daily field notes. These are the main substances of our participant-observation. As we reflect in our daily group meetings, we have found some salient themes emerging – all of which are critical to understanding the local food and health systems.

Globalization & Local Markets
From our experience in Mexico we have been able to see firsthand the tensions arising from pervasive globalization and local community members who want to retain local and regional markets. Throughout Autlán, there are numerous family restaurants, shops and local markets all of which serve to boost the local economy. There are cooperatives and initiatives which work to preserve indigenous knowledge and culture, promote sustainable local production, and in so-doing demonstrate a form of local resistance to global industries and markets. Four specific groups that we had the opportunity to visit and learn more about: La FINCA del Encuentro, Cafe Cuzalapa, Casa Vizcaino, and a local market.

La FINCA del Encuentro is a museum, photo gallery, cafe, and local market located in El Limon, Jalisco. La FINCA sells organically and locally grown food and coffee – all supplied from a plethora of farmers and community cooperatives in the region. This cafe serves to promote local agriculture and producers, which we found to be an impressive way to address impinging global markets.


La FINCA del Encuentro, El Limón, Jalisco

La FINCA del Encuentro, El Limón, Jalisco

They target a wide ranged audience and it was surprising how many young adults were there. Their slogan is “Visita este espacio donde se encuentra el presente con el pasado,” (Visit this space where you can encounter the present along with the past). By this they are connecting the present with the past, the old with the new. They believe that the present is able to resemble the past in being locally sustained and without economic and cultural globalization.

One of the suppliers for La FINCA del Encuentro is the Cafe Cuzalapa. On the Cafe Cuzalapa website they state that “The purpose of our group is to improve the economic, social, and environmental situations and to preserve the biodiversity of the coffee plantations”. They produce shade-grown coffee and other locally harvested food items, in addition to accessories and clothing items that are all based on the forests and fields where they live. Cafe Cuzalapa is the brand name for the products produced and sold by a local women’s cooperative (“Color de La Tierra,” Color of the Earth). Their group has experienced such an overwhelming success that each year they routinely sell-out of their own product. They have traveled to neighboring indigenous communities to give workshops on how to establish their own cooperative, and have also produced an off-shoot group dedicated to strictly making and selling embroideries.

El grupo de Bordado, Cuzalapa, Jalisco

El grupo de Bordado, Cuzalapa, Jalisco

Café Cuzalapa, Cuzalapa, Jalisco

Café Cuzalapa, Cuzalapa, Jalisco

The success of these women’s cooperatives in Cuzalapa (the Cafe Cuzalapa and “Grupo de Embordaje,” Embroidery Group) demonstrates that local markets can be both sustainable and profitable.

Another excellent example of combating globalization and preserving knowledge and culture is a local mezcal distillery in Tonaya, Jalisco called Casa Vizcaino. “Mezcal” is an alcohol, quite similar to tequila, but is derived from a blend of the green and blue agave plants, as opposed to tequila which is produced from a mono-crop of only blue agave. It is not primarily the taste or flavor that differentiates the two, because some types of mezcal and tequila can be very similar, but rather its traditional style production and its connection to local markets and anti-globalization. We toured the distillery where we saw how the mezcal was produced using the traditional methods.

Mezcal Production Process, Tonaya, Jalisco

Mezcal Production Process, Tonaya, Jalisco

No heavy industrial machinery was used and much of the production was done by hand. The elegance and precision that went into the production is unique to mezcal and we later saw the mass production of other mezcals in modern factories. The green and blue agaves are locally grown and manufactured in a unique way that serves to preserve knowledge and culture. We were surprised to learn that just as tequila is only produced in an officially designated “denominación de origen” (denomination of origin which restricts production of a product to a specific geographical area), so is mezcal. Officially, these mezcals we saw being produced in the small town of Tonaya are not labeled and sold as mezcal because we are outside of the denomination of origin which is Oaxaca. The use of certifications was something we also observed with the local food system.

We also visited a “tianguis” (bartering market, although this particular market used cash) at the local university. Here, regional producers of organic and sustainable products come to sell to a predominantly faculty and student market. Here organic farmers and vendors have been spreading the word about the benefits of supporting local agriculture and business. We later learned that in a normal tianguis market, vendors use a barter system to trade produce and other goods, eliminating the need for common currency. By doing so, these vendors have proven the sustainability of local agriculture and as well have challenged globalization, which we discuss more in a later section.

Tianguis at the University of Guadalajara South Coast Campus every Friday.

Tianguis at the University of Guadalajara South Coast Campus every Friday.

We interacted with some vendors to better understand the difference between organic and natural produce, words that are often falsely interchanged in the United States. In Mexico, however, the term organic is used to describe produce that is most likely not equivalent to organic produce in the USA. According to the tianguis vendors, the technical definition of organic is having no chemicals, steroids or pesticides whereas natural food products may have these. Interestingly, the vendors described their produce as “pura natural” (all natural); however emphasized that no chemicals were used in their produce. They did not feel the need to pay a costly fee to label their produce as “organic” despite the fact that, technically, it was. We found this inspirationally rebellious!

Talking to vendors at the tianguis

Talking to vendors at the tianguis

Health & Nutrition
Maize has played a central role in the diet of this region and is commonly cultivated in a “milpa” (a mixed-crop arrangement) with beans, chilies, and squashes. This practice is most commonly used in the Reserve and enables shifting corn crop cultivation for agriculture (Olson 2014). This strategy is very sustainable in that it brings diversity to the field and requires less technological intervention. The persistence of the milpa system is a good example of a sustainable agricultural option. However, we found that in the areas surrounding the Biosphere Reserve there is an abundance of large agribusiness. In spite of this, we found many good examples of grassroots community efforts to support local and regional producers of high quality foods.

In Autlán, we have seen key dietary components that indicate both local and fresh produce. Most if not all meals consist of a corn tortilla with meat and beans, along with various fruit and vegetable based condiments (especially salsas). The corn tortilla is the cornerstone of the local diet. In fact, in 1987 the ancestor of corn (maize) was identified in the Sierra of Manantlán region, which catalyzed the formation of the Biosphere Reserve (Olson 2014). Meals are always served with some sort of fruit or vegetable of which are purchased at local farmers markets around town. In addition, every meal is accompanied with a Coca Cola beverage. Though we saw many opportunities to consume a very healthy, local diet, we also observed the omnipresence of meats and processed foods. Pork or beef meat is consumed at least twice a day, and the lard and animal fats are incorporated throughout the meal as they are used to fry and sauté the beans, vegetables, and sometimes tortillas. The use of chilies and lime (or other citrus) helps reduce the presence of food-borne microbes, in addition to being wonderfully flavorful.


Local gastronomy, Autlán, Jalisco.

Local gastronomy, Autlán, Jalisco

Each time we sat down for a meal, we could virtually see the diet transition on the table – the shift from more locally produced foods to heavily processed foods that characterize the modernized diet. Anecdotally, we also heard many adults talking about health problems such as diabetes and hypertension.
Olson’s current research program explores the variety of approaches to health and medicine that are practiced across different cultures and societies. One goal is to try to better understand common roots and important differences in the ways that health and medicine are understood and practiced by experts in all types of medicines. In particular, Olson has been interviewing healers and curers from homeopathic, anthroposophic, naturopathic, herbal, and other training backgrounds (both in Mexico and Western Europe). As she looks at the use of medicinal plants, a common sentiment that many of her interviewees have related is the close connection between human health and our diet. During our current field school, we have been engaging with local producers and families in Autlán and we have found the recent book by medical physician Daphne Miller, “Farmacology,” (2013) to be very relevant. Through Miller’s exploration of the connections of soil to our health, we have begun to ponder how the traditional Autlense diet would measure up. Miller recommends that to promote optimal health in our bodies, we need to treat the land as if it were a living organism, caring for every component equally (Miller 2013). This preventative tactic generates healthier crops and animals which in turn transfer to our own health – a holistic process that is healthier for our bodies and minds, along with being a sustainable way to support the local economy.

Mexican Identity & Ethnicity
An interesting theme we noted during our stay in Mexico is the idea of ethnicity and in particular how various Mexicans describe their own identity. There exists a strong sense of nationalism in Mexican identity that is reflected in the pride of calling oneself “Mexicano/a”. Non-locals are noticeable and given labels such as “gringo/a” (a derogatory term for people from the USA) or “gabacho/a” (an endearing term for a Mexican who was born abroad). However, there exist different levels of ‘Mexicanness’ within this common national identity. There continues to be a strong reverence and degree of respect for indigenous heritage, particularly the Nahua peoples who have inhabited this particular region for thousands of years.

We saw a salient example of a desire to reconnect with, perhaps lost, indigenous roots when we visited Cuzalapa and the women’s cooperative (Color de La Tierra, Color of the Earth). One of the group founders is Doña Rosa.

Doña Rosa giving a detailed tour of coffee production, Cuzalapa, Jalisco

Doña Rosa giving a detailed tour of coffee production, Cuzalapa, Jalisco.

Raised by her grandparents, Doña Rosa learned the ways of the Nahua at an early age and has since attempted to conserve Nahua culture and identity through her work at Cuzalapa. She is also working more towards preserving traditional knowledge and supporting community-based sustainable development. As she showed us her land, she demonstrated how everything had a purpose, effortlessly identifying every plant or insect in Spanish, English and Nahuatl.

Doña Rosa giving a detailed tour of coffee forests, Cuzalapa, Jalisco.

Doña Rosa giving a detailed tour of coffee forests, Cuzalapa, Jalisco.

Along with some other women from the community, Dona Rosa has been taking a Nahuatl language class to expand her vocabulary and to preserve her Nahua culture and identity. Examples like this can be seen throughout Mexico in attempts to preserve the vast indigenous cultures that exist. This promotion of indigenous culture plays a role in the ethnicity and identity of Mexicans today. Those considered “most Mexican” are often those with the most ties to their indigenous heritage. We learned of this concept from a member of our book study group who claimed that, “Yo soy muy Mexicano porque así se parece un Mexicano. No soy alto, no tengo barba, tengo piel moreno – y así somos la gente indígena de esta región.” (“I am very Mexican because I look like a Mexican. I am not tall, I don’t have a beard, I have brown skin – and that’s how the indigenous people from this region look.”) He sees his “Mexicanness” in the mirror.

There exists another type of identification which threatens indigenous culture and promotes “blanqueamiento,” the practice of whitening a population. This identification is most prevalent in the media. Similar to media in the USA, television commercials, billboards, and telenovelas all portray a desired identity: being fair-skinned with light hair and eyes. After spending a day in Mexico, one can easily see that these “white” physical characteristics are not at all the most common. The promotion of “white” images by the media threatens the value and appreciation of indigenous Mexican culture and identity which include numerous ethnicities and languages. Certainly this type of racism – preferring fair-skinned attributes – is likely to penetrate other areas of daily social and economic life.

We also could not help but notice how greatly ingrained “mestizaje” (the blending of indigenous and Spanish culture) is in contemporary Mexico. Stemming from colonization by the Spanish, a new identity has formed containing both indigenous and Spanish components – the mestizo. Mexican culture today is very much a result of this colonial legacy. A great example of this can be seen in the music. We had the pleasure of attending several concerts of one of our host family brothers – Miguel Angel Aldaco. He performs covers of classic Mexican ballads and crossover songs in various venues across Mexico.

Live concert, Miguel Angel Aldaco, Autlan, Jalisco.

Live concert, Miguel Angel Aldaco, Autlan, Jalisco.

During one of his sets, we were struck by a song called “Granada,” a song glorifying the beauty of the southern Spanish city by that same name. In another concert, he was accompanied by professional dancers who performed two different style dances: Spanish flamenco and Mexican folklore. The combining of these two dances during the concert was an intriguing display of culture blending which is deeply rooted in Mexican culture. As part of the interactions with these professional singers and dancers, Alvarez and Bergeon were given the opportunity to put on the costumes and experience the movements of flamenco and traditional Jalisco dances.

Bergeon wearing a traditional folklore dress

Bergeon wearing a traditional folklore dress

Alvarez wearing the traditional “traje de charro”

Alvarez wearing the traditional “traje de charro

Bergeon and Alvarez wearing traditional Spanish flamenco attire

Bergeon and Alvarez wearing traditional Spanish flamenco attire

Gender & Sexuality
Many anthropologists and scholars have written about the “machismo” (exaggerated ‘maleness’) in Mexico, but neither Alvarez nor Bergeon was prepared to experience it first-hand as they emerged from the airplane during our layover in Mexico City. Both were struck by the hypersexualization of women (called “marianismo”), particularly the prevalence of women wearing very high-heels and an abundance of bright make-up. (Keep in mind that Alvarez hails from Buffalo, NY, and Bergeon from a small town near Toledo, OH.) The countless women in impossibly-high heels and skin-tight pants with provocative finishing touches gave both Alvarez and Bergeon pause. Whether it is the high heel shoe store on every corner, or TV commercials-billboards portraying hypersexualized women, this type of hypersexualization of women is very pervasive in Mexico.

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These representations of femininity are passed on to children and adolescents. One night we attended an amateur dance recital at the local youth center. Not only were all of the teachers women, but the final routine further demonstrated the prevalence of hypersexualization. After all of the children had performed, the instructors began their own routine as a special surprise for their young students. The instructors marched out on stage in bright red high heels, skinny jeans and revealing blouses. From an anthropological lens, this procession seemed like a ritual initiation of young children into the gendered world of machismo and marianismo.

The household or domestic domain is where we find further evidence of the gender roles. In the majority of the homes we visited, the women assumed the role of “Ama de Casa” (homemaker) which means being the mother, cook, and general caretaker of everything in the house. It is not uncommon for head women of the house to cook a meal for their families and wait until everyone has finished before eating themselves. Women, especially older women, do not generally work, but rather remain in the home taking care of children, grandchildren and the house duties.

Doña Beré preparing dinner

Doña Beré preparing dinner

The men, on the other hand, generally work during the day and serve as the main income earners for the family. In a sense this is what has been stereotyped as “traditional gender roles” wherein the woman is the center of the domestic domain, and the man the primary navigator of the public domain. In some cases, however, where men are not in the picture, women assume both roles.
Over the last twenty years, and with the continued expansion of factory work in Mexico, many women are working outside of the home. When we visited Tonaya, a smaller old town outside of Autlán, and had the opportunity to tour a mezcal factory.

Woman working in tequila factory assembly line, Tonaya, Jalisco.

Woman working in tequila factory assembly line, Tonaya, Jalisco.

We observed the worker demographics and noted that there was about 1 male for every 20 female workers. Women worked the tedious assembly lines, placing bottles on the assembly belt, tightening caps, and making labels. The few men that worked there lifted boxes of mezcal and moved them to the transportation truck. This experience was interesting in that we saw women at work while at the same time only having jobs ‘suitable’ for women.

A few days prior to our trip to Tonaya, we visited Cuzalapa in the Biosphere Reserve, and encountered a completely different situation of gender roles. In Cuzalapa we visited the women’s cooperative Color de la Tierra. A representative and founding member of the group, Doña Rosa, gave us a detailed tour. We noticed the caring companionship of Dona Rosa with her husband and colleague, Don Luis. These two stepped aside to talk about business for a few moments during our tour and the harmony in their relationship was impressive. We wondered if the type of partnership and equality in the relationship that we observed was related to the strong Nahua identity of this couple and community.

Doña Rosa and Don Luis excusing themselves for a brief business meeting

Doña Rosa and Don Luis excusing themselves for a brief business meeting

As we proceed toward the airport for Alvarez and Bergeon’s return to the USA, we took the opportunity to reflect on the field experience one final time. The transformative impact of a well-designed short study away experience is wrought with emotion. The students were both able to make friends and immerse themselves deeply in the many beautiful dimensions of Mexican culture. They were welcomed with open arms by the local host family, the Aldacos. Nuestra experiencia en Autlán nos ha enseñado mucho acerca de nuestras propias vidas y esperamos poder compartir este conocimiento con nuestros amigos y familiares en los EEUU. Gracias familia Aldaco para el cuidado de nosotros y por invitarnos a su casa. ¡Gracias a todos los quienes pasaron el tiempo con nosotros! Y gracias Autlán de la Grana por la experiencia que nos han dado. ¡Esperamos poder regresar pronto!

(From left) Q. Bergeon, G. Olson, E. Olson, T. Alvarez, F. Aldaco, A. Aldaco

(From left) Q. Bergeon, G. Olson, E. Olson, T. Alvarez, F. Aldaco, A. Aldaco


Donnelly-Smith, Laura. “Global Learning through Short-Term Study Abroad,” Peer Review 11.4 (Fall 2009). http://www.aacu.org/peerreview/pr-fa09/donnellysmith.cfm

Fischer, Karin. “Some Health Programs Overseas Let Students do Too Much, Too Soon,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 4 Nov. 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/Overseas-Health-Programs-Let/142777/

Miller, Daphne. (2013) “Farmacology: What innovative family farming can teach us about health and healing.” HarperCollins.

Olson, Elizabeth A. (2014) “Indigenous Knowledge and Development: Livelihoods, health experiences, and medicinal plant knowledge in a Mexican biosphere reserve.” Lexington Books.

Ruiz, Don M. (1997). Los Cuatro Acuerdos. San Rafael, CA: Amber Allen Publishing.

Trooboff, Stevan, Michael Vande Berg and Jack Rayman. “Employer Attitudes toward Study Abroad.” Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad, Volume XV (Fall 2007/Winter 2008): 17-33.

Zamastil-Vondrova, Kristine. “Good Faith or Hard Data? Justifying Short-Term Programs,” International Educator (NAFSA) Jan/Feb 2005.



Japanese Agricultural Show Village

MANILA, 26 MAY 2014

I am writing this “Notes From the Field” in Manila, but it is about fieldwork last week in Japan.

Officially, this summer’s fieldwork is about indigenous knowledge and agro-technological change, in part as a context for understanding how genetically modified crops articulate with smallholder farming systems. I’m particularly focused on cotton and rice, which provide important contrasts in indigenous management and which also happen to be two key GM crops for smallholders. (Bt cotton is the only GM crop planted by large numbers of smallholders — mainly in India. Golden Rice, the most hotly debated GM crop, may be released in 4-5 years here in the Philippines.)

But this fieldwork is part of a larger intellectual project of developing a three-pillar theory of why farmers farm as they do. One pillar is experimentation, or “environmental learning,” which many people wrongly assume to be the be-all and end-all of farming. Another is emulation, or “social learning,” whereby farmers, acting like the cultural creatures they are, follow cues of those around them according to complex dynamics not yet well understood (Stone et al. 2014). The third pillar is didactics, whereby various actors explicitly tell/show farmers how to farm, motivated by a whole suite of political, economic, and philosophical interests. A common feature in didactic agriculture is the show farmer.

Actually show farmer is not a discrete category of individual, but a role played by farmers. It refers to any farmer whose activities are held up as exemplary. Frequently (but not always) their behavior has been shaped, subsidized, or encouraged by the entity holding them up.

For example, some years ago I interviewed at an NGO in Andhra Pradesh about their organic cotton scheme. When I wanted to see some of their farms, they brought me to the farm of one Yaku, who was prospering by using their suite of non-pesticide management methods.

With Yaku and family. Yaku had us stand where viewers could see three elememnts of organic farming: a bird perch, pheromone trap, and marigolds. Andhra Pradesh, 2005.

With Yaku and family. Yaku had us stand where viewers could see three elememnts of organic farming: a bird perch, pheromone trap, and marigolds. Andhra Pradesh, 2005.

Yaku, of course, was a show farmer, and from a conventional methodological standpoint, he is a completely tainted case. We use probabilistic sampling methods to control even subtle bias, and NGO-selected cases are brazenly biased. But from the theoretical perspective sketched above, the show farmer is fascinating to take a close look at. Paul Richards’ (1993) exposition of agriculture as performance was concerned with the improvisational character of farming, not the fact that agricultural performances are often for audiences; just what was this show farmer performing, for whom, and why? On what qualities was he selected? In what ways is he coached and compensated? How does his performance compare to others in the community? What impact does his performance have on various audiences? And so on.

With Yaku and family, the primary aim of the performance was to showcase the success of the NGO’s organic methods and to appear as clean, prosperous and grateful peasants. They were enacting “sustainable” agriculture, although it was not sustained – my student and collaborator Andrew Flachs revisited the farm eight years later and found the farmer was no longer using organic methods. It usually takes a lot of external support to function as a show farmer.

Which brings us to Japan, and to Akita Prefecture, and to the Hachirogata Polder, and to a whole show farm landscape.

Hachirogata used to a 22k ha. lake, second largest lake in Japan, and home to a thriving fishing industry. But beginning in 1952, plans were drawn to reclaim most of the land beneath the lake and convert it to a polder. A dyke was built (with technical advice from the dyke-building Dutch) enclosing 17k ha. of the lake. In 1963 they started pumping the water out, planning to erect a model farming community on the reclaimed (but still very muddy) plain.

The Hachirotaga Polder today. Red arrows mark the dyke.

The Hachirotaga Polder today. Red arrows mark the dyke.

A model village called Ogata-mura was commenced in 1964, and just under 12k ha. were given over to rational efficient modern rice agriculture. Instead of the average 1.3 ha. Japanese farmers work on a part-time basis, Hachirogata farms were all 15 ha. and designed for full-time farming. Mechanization was pushed – sometimes to the point of absurdity, such as use of helicopters to sow seeds. Farmers were recruited to take up “rational, efficient” modernist farming from 1967-74.

It’s not hard to see why crowded, waterlogged Netherlands would condone such a landscape transformation, but the ironic truth is that Japan was (and is) short on seafood and long on rice. Opening of the model rice farms coincided with a voluntary rice reduction scheme whereby Japanese farmers were paid to not plant rice (such payments are called set-asides in the US, where farmers wryly talk about “growing a good crop of set-asides”). In 1970 rice reductions became mandatory, and they continue to this day in various forms. For instance, farmers are subsidized to grow soy, or at least to sell rice as feed for factory farms rather than as human food. (Richard Moore [1993] gives a fascinating account of ways farmers resisted government control of their rice production, including strategies for making their fields less “legible.”)

Rice farming at Hachirogata today is almost completely mechanized, but so is most rice agriculture in Japan today. Take the transplanting operation, which was in full swing during my trip. In much of the world, intensive rice farmers start their plants in a nursery and then transplant the seedlings. This is a laborious process, done mostly by women’s work groups in sub-Saharan Africa, southern India, and elsewhere in the developing world.

Manual rice transplanting by women's work group (and 1 Wash U student). Andhra Pradesh, 2008

Manual rice transplanting by women’s work group (and 1 Wash U student). Andhra Pradesh, 2008

Manual rice transplanting by women's work group (and 1 Wash U student). Andhra Pradesh, 2008

Manual rice transplanting by women’s work group. Andhra Pradesh, 2008

But in industrialized Japan, with its underpopulation woes, high labor costs, and preponderance of part-time farmers, transplanting is done by a slick little $25k machine.

Click images to enlarge or view short video of the transplanter in action, with me feeling a bit like Mike Dukakis in the tank.

The man behind the wheel, to whom the local extension office had brought me, was great to talk with, no stranger to being photographed, and an able representative of Hachirogata agriculture. He was, of course a show farmer, and last year was even on show for a large delegation of Africans, brought to Japan by the Coalition of African Rice Development working with the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

African get to see modern rational efficient irrelevant agriculture. Photos courtesy Matsuhashi Hideo. Click images to enlarge.

Africans get to see modern rational efficient irrelevant agriculture. Photos courtesy Matsuhashi Hideo. Click images to enlarge.

What the Africans concluded by this demonstration of the benefits of industrial might, fossil fuels, and lavish government support in a country where farm labor is scarce and expensive, I cannot say. Nor can I say what they concluded about the whole rationalized landscape — the engineering feat of reclaiming land, the large consolidated farms optimized for mechanization and full-time farming, the efficiently concentrated central functions. That is the real question I left with, as this is not just a story of individual show farmers, but show landscapes. But the whole project seems to have more to do with preening by the agricultural establishment than with practical advice for African farmers — or Japanese farmers, for that matter. (Donald Wood [2012] reports the local opinion that the landscape had been designed by “somebody who knew nothing about farming.”)

Hachirogata clearly is a scheme designed to be legibile and administratable, as James Scott (1998) stresses, but it does not fit his other criteria for failure (as Wood notes). Now celebrating its 50th birthday, it lives on as a show, subsidized as an icon and an exhibit of odd vision of agricultural modernity.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Moore, Richard 1993 Resistance to Japanese rice policy: A case-study of the Hachirōgata model farm project. Political Geography 12(3): 278-296.

Richards, Paul 1993 Cultivation: Knowledge or performance? In An anthropological critique of development: The growth of ignorance. H. Mark, ed. Pp. 61-78. London: Routledge.

Scott, James 1998 Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Stone, Glenn Davis, Andrew Flachs, and Christine Diepenbrock 2014 Rhythms of the herd: Long term dynamics in seed choice by Indian farmers. Technology in Society 36:26-38. [pdf]

Wood, Donald C. 2012 Ogata-Mura: Sowing Dissent and Reclaiming Identity in a Japanese Farming Village. New York: Berghahn.

Call for Participants

Next week on June 4th we will kick off Notes from the Field 2014, the C&A collaborative summer series, with an entry from Glenn Stone entitled “Japanese Agricultural Show Village”. We hope to have a wide range of participants including undergraduate students, graduate students, instructors, researchers, and professors.  

Invitation to Participate in a new C&A collaborative blog project:

The Culture & Agriculture section of the AAAs is beginning our “Notes from the Field” collaborative blog project this summer. We invite all members of C&A who will be conducting research in the field this summer to participate. This includes, but is not limited to, undergraduate students, graduate students and professors alike. We hope that this inclusive project will provide a space for conversing about field experiences, fresh research, and possibly lead to more collaborative projects.

**  Authors retain all copyright **

Contributions to Notes from the Field will be posted as they are received. Please email all submissions to Mary Beth Schmid (the current C&A webmaster), mary.beth.schmid@uky.edu . The submissions will be reviewed and posted on Wednesdays throughout June and July.

Contributions can include videos, photo essays as well as written essays. There is a 2,500 word limit. This is a forum meant to encourage discussions and to give people a chance to introduce and work out ideas for articles and other larger pieces of work. Please feel free to be creative and to send in shorter pieces.

Weekly slot deadlines fall on each Monday in June and July. The following weekly slot deadlines are still available: June 16h, 23rd, 30th, & July 7th.

Please email Mary Beth Schmid ( mary.beth.schmid@uky.edu ) with your selected deadline from the list above this week. Although we will continuously accept entries all summer, the hope is that we will have at least one new entry posted by each Wednesday of each week of June and July. Feel free to email Mary Beth at the email address provided above with comments or questions.