Agricultural Belonging

Thank you to my co-presenters, and thank you all for coming to our presentation today. I want to extend the land acknowledgment from the MSU WRAC community and this conference, and situate it specifically within what I’ll be talking about today, which in many ways is about what Gabriela Raquel Rios calls land-based literacies. Some of the questions I’ve been mulling over in my dissertation work on critical making in agricultural and rural space has led me to wonder what critical literacies we might find by arguing for agriculture as a culture rhetoric. As in rhetorical studies, there are ghost stories, to use Malea Powell’s term, of farming, and in this story, as in all others, they are deeply tied to the land – to this land here in traditional Anishinaabeg – Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi peoples territory and to the lands where my dissertation work has taken place in Eastern North Carolina: tribes and nations who have been erased or who are precarious in their recognition: Coree, Tuscarora, Catawba, and the only other federally recognized tribe outside the Eastern Band of Cherokee, the Lumbee, who signed away many of the benefits usually granted to federally recognized tribes and yet still survive and resist in Robeson County, on and with the land. There are farmers in these places, people who have been steward to the land despite pipelines, despite climate change, despite colonization and continued occupation. Today, I will be talking about the ways bodies have been included and excluded from farming identity and how this plays into cultural practice, both the ruling relations of agricultural life and the tactics used by farmers of color, queer farmers, and others to maintain a tie to the land. My hope is that it will give us a different understanding of what can belong in cultural rhetorics – that while farming and rural culture has been white-washed and straight-washed both in this country and in rhetorical studies, that there are different stories to be told, and that are being told.

I’ll begin today’s conversation talking a little bit about where I’m coming from in this research, the story of how this research came to be. I’ll move to a discussion of some of the theoretical frameworks I’m using related to literacy, technology, and the ways visual storytelling changes those dynamics of unbelonging. I’ll then move to talking about the preliminary analysis I’ve conducted of two hashtags on Twitter that tell the stories of farmers living at the margins. I’ll walk through some of the themes that I’ve discovered in analyzing these images, and I’ll end the presentation talking about what this means for cultural rhetorics researchers, farming communities, and the study of rural space

To begin, I want to go over some research I did in 2016-2017 and presented at the Carolina Rhetorics Conference at the University of South Carolina. My family had just begun keeping beehives, and my mother and father were working together to add beehives to the land and start some gardens that would eventually be used for a small, streetside farmstand. They moved into this practice with an interest in being stewards of the land, to create an organic practice that would help revitalize a piece of land that used to be a concrete factory and is essentially 50% floodplain. Their goal was to help build a local food system in a part of Eastern NC that is rapidly developing and that is increasingly pushing out local people. In a place where meth is sold out of a trailer while billionaires have second homes built on a floating island, I started thinking about the relationship that farming and agriculture had in the conversation about how we were going to preserve and heal our community, which while predominantly white, has strong communities of color living at the margins – the literal margins of the county, the backwoods, down roads that don’t look like roads, in neighborhoods and houses that look abandoned next to the shore. I was thinking about gender, as I often do, of the relationship my dad had to the land versus my mom. He moved with purpose, like the land was his playground, like he had a natural belonging and ownership over it, whereas my mother remained relatively passive. At the same time, I was having conversations with my community back in Alabama, where in Birmingham, farms like Jones Valley and several land conservancies are looking to increase participation in farming among women, communities of color, and queer and trans people. Many of these farms engage in social media marketing, and I started seeing a hashtag, #farmher, that circulated throughout many of the posts on Instagram. So I took to looking at these posts, at the #farmher movement, and what it was saying and doing to combat the assumption that men were farmers, and that women who farmed were not. There was an identity slippage here that was important to me, in terms of my family farm and in terms of the farming culture in rural places in the US. How were women pushing against gender norms while still surviving in a strong, patriarchal culture in the South?

What I really found from that research was that #farmher was not as progressive of a hashtag as I thought. There were about 31,000 Instagram posts I analyzed, and I believe less than a dozen depicted anyone other than a cis, white, straight, woman. These women rarely identified as “farmers” – they were farm wives, and they referred to their husbands, who owned their land, as “farmer.” There was also an undercurrent of white supremacist relationships to agriculture and property ownership, of allying with Trump’s politics and exclusionary narratives of farming. At the end of that research, I provided some opportunities for further research, namely looking at deeper lines of stratification among farmers at the margins, particularly queer farmers like myself and my partner. My audience at the time did not seem to think that was an important avenue of research, but I still do, and here’s why: my father passed away in the summer of 2017, and all of a sudden, that relationship between male farmers and female farmers was no longer at the center of my experience. Don’t get me wrong: there were and are men who love to show up on our farm and tell us how to run it. But for the most part, it is only me and my mother, trying to figure out our place. In the South, I have watched organizations like the Black Land Conservancy provide incredible support for farmers of color – providing low interest loans and grants so that the descendants of sharecroppers in the 20th century could buy back the lands their relatives farmed. Venues like Bitter South and Queer Appalachia lifting up the experiences of queer and trans farmers across the flyover states. Places in the West and upstate New York, like Soul Fire Farm, providing safe places for a group of people who had been marked as unbelonging to rural life, providing a space for relationality with traditional practices. What I saw from the #farmher research and from my own story was that this woman [point to top left picture] belonged to agriculture, but these people [point to bottom and top right pictures] did not.

This question of belonging and unbelonging is what I want to explore in this research, and specifically through the storytelling techniques of farmers of color and queer farmers on Instagram, because as it turns out, they are also using hashtags to reclaim agricultural practice. In my new analysis of these images, I’m drawing from some different knowledge traditions in academia, including Gabriela Raquel Rios’s article on land-based literacies in the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, where she writes beautifully of the ways that knowledge is produced through a performative relationship with land. I am also taking from feminist affect theorists Sara Ahmed and Ranjana Khanna who discuss affective economies. Ahmed argues that certain bodies stick to histories of whiteness and hatred and are sealed by that circulation of feeling as “Other.” Khanna similarly talks of the ways bodies are deterritorialized by an engagement with affect, which she defines as an external technology that circulates and dissolves the self. In other words, these scholars are interested in how whiteness is a circulation of feeling – that feeling being that Otherness will break down the walls of who we are and how we belong. Whiteness is aimed at raising ourselves above others, separate from others, abstracted from others in order to maintain what we have and who we are. I argue that in farming communities, there is a long history of violence that is related to these circulations – slavery, sharecropping, stolen land that was then gifted to white families to cultivate, and new divisions of labor and technologies in the 20th century. These all mark Othered bodies as unbelonging to agriculture in order to maintain whiteness’s claim to the land.

Khanna and Ahmed both argue that these circulations are about creating separations and borders. We as cultural rhetoricians know that a story is a relation. Stories are meeting places, constellations of people, things, land, animals, knowledge, ancestors, relatives, communities. They are necessarily about breaking down borders and finding the ways we relate back to one another. They are reterritorializing. They are belonging, aimed at combating this unbelonging. And so I want to think about the ways that farmers at the margins are using story, specifically in image form, to relate and reterritorialize their relationships to land-based literacies and practices.

While my previous research on #farmher was about analyzing and distilling these image-making tactics using grounded theory, I feel personally that coding data in that way is antithetical to a cultural rhetorics practice, and besides, at this point in the research, my job feels like it is to witness rather than to draw conclusions. So I’m going to highlight some Twitter images that are related to two hashtags and talk about the strategies I see in them. The first you see here is #farmersofcolor, which depicts farmers of color engaging in various agricultural practices. Almost all of these images show a relationality between farmers – the top left image depicts young farmers learning from more advanced farmers. The screen shot from Civil Eats shows farmers supporting each other via a fistbump while in the act of tilling a field. The top right corner is from Soul Fire Farm, and most of the images they post are some variation of the girl squad genre of images, where three or more women or trans people of color pose together holding the products of their labor. The other kind of image we see in these images is a relationality to the products and foundations of farm labor – cupping seeds as in the bottom right hand corner image, or another image from Soul Fire Farm that depicts three women snuggling a gourd. These images are starkly different from those that white female farmers are depicting: they show kindness, stewardship, rather than a bravado that deals in the rhetoric of masculine muscle, physical strength, ownership, and control.

Queer farmers, in contrast, are more often than not taking selfies or images of one to two people engaging in farm labor. These images seem to be more about depicting queerness itself in farm space. In this top left image, the goal of this image seems to be to depict lesbianness in a rural setting. The righthand image is a person who has posted many images performing what one might call theatrical stances in the fields. These images are about interrupting heteropatriarchal relationships on the farm with queerness itself, disrupting what it means to be a sanctioned body in this space. Instead of saying, “These bodies can be in this space the same as straight people,” these images seem to be arguing that rural space IS queer space. The middle image was an image that was tagged with the hashtag #queerfarmers but also the hashtag #blackfarmers. It seems to operate more in the realm of what the hashtag #farmersofcolor is aiming to do, depicting relationships between people and materials. But regardless, these images show new relationships between blackness, queerness, and rurality.

I want to take a moment here to mention how limited this research is for a variety of reasons: data privacy and security have changed significantly in the past 2 years since I originally conducted the #farmher study, so it is increasingly difficult to obtain image data from social media sites, and rightfully so, though I will let others more versed in those critical digital literacies speak to that. These are also Twitter images, where Twitter is not really a media-centric platform, and I think it’s important to consider the differences between language discourse about belonging and image discourse. How are we talking about ourselves as farmers? is a very different question than How are we picturing ourselves as farmers? What I do find interesting is that there is a self determination occurring in these pictures that I don’t know is really about “changing the picture” of what farmers can be in the public sphere. These relational practices that we see in these images seem much more personal than they are performative, though again, I don’t have enough of these stories to be able to make that claim. But I do know that there are ways that we might continue thinking about the cultural rhetorics and stories of belonging that queer people and people of color have to tell on the farm. There are ways these stories can bring communities together for practical reasons (sharing documentation of their farming practice to help compare notes) and coalition-building (you’re sharing pictures of this plant, can you also share seeds? How did you deal with this problem or that?). Wherever this research goes next, it might focus on a photo voice, oral history, or talking circle methodology that isn’t just about what farmers at the margins are putting on social media, but how they are enacting belonging in their everyday, lived realities. Thank you.