[A different version of this post appeared as the inaugural “Notes From The Field” on the website for Culture and Agriculture.]
Those of us interested in farming talk about “indigenous knowledge” a lot, but several years ago Paul Richards suggested that the focus on knowledge misses the point of smallholder farming; it’s more a matter of improvisational abilities. Agriculture is a performance.
Good point but Paul left the audience out of the discussion. Agriculture in some situations is actually performed for an audience. For some time now I have been thinking about the concept of 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.
Yaku, of course, was a show farmer, and every researcher knows he is a tainted case. We use sampling methods to control even subtle bias, and NGO-selected cases are brazenly biased. But he is still interesting to consider for the questions he raises. Just what was he performing, for whom, and with what impact? On what qualities was he selected? In what ways is he coached and compensated? How does his performance compare to others in the community?
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 actually 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 what this is really about — Japan, and Akita Prefecture, and the Hachirogata Polder, and 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.
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 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.
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 (that’s right, $25,000).
Bonus: short video of your humble narrator riding the transplanter, feeling a bit like Michael 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.
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 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 (in Seeing Like a State) stresses, but it does not fit his other criteria for failure. Now celebrating its 50th birthday, it lives on as a show, subsidized as an icon and an exhibit of odd vision of agricultural modernity.
Is this Japanese story about how governments can act like drunk gamblers? Throwing good money after bad in poker, with the hope that eventually something good will happen if we just stay in the game a little longer? Or perhaps it is an issue of pride – shutting it down now after this long would make us look foolish for keeping it going so long. Or maybe it is like Aramis, Latour’s failed railway system, which never really had a chance of working, but everyone was stuck on their own little part of it, and nobody wanted to pull the plug on something with so much money and political backing?
Glenn – great post. A couple of reactions.
First, it’s not quite correct to say that Paul Richards left out the ‘audience’ in his metaphor of farming as a ‘performance’, akin to a musical performance – yet his idea of the audience is not quite the same as the one you highlight here in the persona of the ‘show farmer’.
Using Paul’s original metaphor, the ‘audience’ can be interpreted as the ensemble of the natural and social elements present in the time and place where the farmer farms. If the farmer’s performance is successful then she is rewarded with a good harvest – enough food, feed and other products to feed her family and sustain her farm through another year.
But the performance metaphor is supple enough to think about the role of the ‘audience’ in different ways. For example, consumers are an audience of a different kind, and they can reward the farmer by buying and enjoying and recommending her products – or show their disapproval by rejecting her crops and advising others to do the same.
The performance of the ‘show farmer’ is of a specific and fascinating kind, unique to the world of modern farming in which farming techniques are carried out for the purposes of ostentatious display, for an audience of aid donors, technocrats, journalists, NGOs, and others.
We should also recognise that farmers are knowing agents in this performance, and they know very well how to tailor their presentation for different audiences and purposes. Ingenuous visitors are readily fooled by this theatre, and while experienced field workers, journalists and researchers know that they have to be alert in its presence.
A nice example of tailored performances put on by show farmers, and a living example of innocence abroad, appeared recently in Mark Lynas’s blog. Lynas has been enjoying a bit of ‘development tourism’ that brought him into contact with show farmers and coincidentally made him into an unwitting casualty of Bangladesh’s information war over transgenic Bt brinjal (eggplant, aubergine). http://www.marklynas.org/2014/05/bt-brinjal-in-bangladesh-the-true-story/#more-1341
Lynas knows for sure that he has got ‘the true story’ about the tremendous success of Bt brinjal because he heard it from the farmer himself – only it seems the same farmer may have been telling radically different stories to NGOs and journalists, demanding compensation for crop failure. How strange.
Lynas promises to post exclusive testimony from the other farmers he met. That will make for interesting reading, we can be sure, but perhaps we should read it the way we would read a critic’s review of a theatrical performance.
Subtract boutique farmers selling handsful of organic kale, and industrial farmers growing GMO corn and soybeans, and you get the backbone of agriculture: legions of migrant labor moiling under the sun, producing everything on the right-hand side of the supermarket. How many of them live and work in the US? What percentage of farm acreage and irrigation feels the kiss of human sweat?