Clouds of dust plume behind my car as I venture down the long driveway to my first farm interview of the summer. Despite the high water year and lush greenery, the ground here is distinctively dry. A curious butterfly flutters through one open window and out the other. Toward the end of the driveway, an obstinate flock of free range ducks stop me in my tracks, taking their time to waddle out of my way and into a goat enclosure. Upon parking, I am greeted by an overzealous lab mix, soon followed by the farmer, who welcomes me with a similar warmth. Within my first thirty seconds here, I have already become acquainted with at least five different species, each playing an essential role on the farm.
Farms are complex sites of multispecies interactions. They interface non-human actors with an array of human social, cultural, and economic constructs. Accordingly, farms can be understood as what anthropologist Anna Tsing dubs an “assemblage” in The Mushroom at the End of the World. Assemblages are broadly defined as dynamic, open-ended gatherings of bodies, materials, ideas, and phenomena. I’ve been trying to map assemblages at the various farms involved in my research, and it often feels like an infinite task. There are the obvious elements such as farmers, crops, pollinators, animals, tools, and water. But take a deep dive into any one of those elements and it becomes far more complicated. Crops, for example, come from a seed. But where does the seed come from? Is the farmer seed saving, or purchasing from a seed company? Where does the seed company get their seed? Is it organic? Hybrid? GMO? If they are using pesticides and fertilizers, where, and how, are they produced? Then there’s the soil to consider. How many different species of microbes are contributing to the health of the crops? It’s said that there are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are humans on Earth. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Yet, if your first interaction with the food you eat is at a grocery store, it’s probable that you haven’t considered all of the more-than-human elements assembled in a single tomato, for example—and to no fault of your own. The modern American supermarket is a surreal site to behold; cardboard boxes of unrecognizably processed grains sit on metal shelves for months, exotic fruits with indistinct origins are available as staple products for suburban shoppers, and an abundance of meat products sourced from indeterminate individuals are on refrigerated display. As Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the ubiquitous hum of fluorescent lights and chilling air conditioned aisles create a distinctly un-natural environment. By spatially, temporally, and ecologically detaching food from its origins, modern American food systems invisibilize the complex more-than-human assemblages and multispecies interactions from which food emerges.
The invisibilization of more-than-human assemblages in grocery stores is to the benefit of industrial agri-business and to the detriment of small, organic, and regenerative farms. Industrialized monocrop operations that douse their fields with pesticides and fertilizers count on the fact that consumers won’t think twice about where their food comes from, or how it’s grown. Because of government subsidies, this food is cheaper to purchase than food grown on small, organic, and regenerative farms, despite the fact that it is ultimately more expensive to grow. Many of the small farmers who I’ve spoken with this summer have cited competing with prices of subsidized agriculture as a primary challenge. Few of these farmers regularly turn a profit, and many struggle to break even.
If more-than-human assemblages are taken seriously, then an ear of corn is not merely an ear of corn: it becomes the genetic modification used to engineer the seed. It becomes the soil the seeds are planted in and the hands—or machine—it was planted by. It becomes the pesticides and fertilizers that nourish and protect the grain, and the ensuing pollution of rivers, animals, humans, oceans, and atmosphere. It becomes explicitly entangled in a greater assemblage of life; and in purchasing and consuming it, we too become entangled. Perhaps the next time you need groceries, you will consider shopping locally, and think twice about where your food is coming from and how it was grown.
Pollan, M. (2011). The omnivore’s dilemma. Bloomsbury Publishing
PLC.Tsing, A. L. (2017). The mushroom at the end of the world. Princeton University Press
Julia Jacobson, Western Resource Fellow | Julia is a Master of Environmental Science student interested in the intersections of multispecies interactions, food, and community. Her research aims to understand how farmers in southwest Colorado are experiencing and responding to climate change, and the more-than-human interactions involved in these processes. Prior to coming to the Yale School of the Environment, Julia worked as an environmental journalist and educator in her hometown of Gunnison, Colorado. She holds a B.S. in ecology and evolutionary biology and a B.A. in English literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder. In her freetime, Julia enjoys skiing, rafting, hiking, gardening, and all things outside. See what Julia has been up to. | Blog