Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Critical pastoral: Reorienting in complex contexts

I spent the past several months looking across the Dunedin Harbour at what is marked on the bus maps simply as "fertilizer factory." The Ravensbourne superphosphate plant bills itself as the premier source for pastoral nutrients in New Zealand, and considering the role of fertilizer in pastoral systems has made me understand something new aboutthe way that explanatory stories operate, especially when they are about something like food -- something we encounter often, may care about deeply, but do not necessary have much systemic knowledge about.

The short version of how I've needed to revise my story of pasturing sheep has to do with understanding of how pastures work. Although I have known, at various points, that people fertilize grasses and other fodder to make them grow better (and hence that pasturage represents a potential threat to water -- frankly, even without fertilizer, potentially, given the nutrients in animal waste), I found that I still romanticized grassland systems as, at best, letting animals forage in ecosystems adapted to their grazing.

This is not exactly the wrong story, but it makes me think about the trajectory of my understanding of corn agriculture: for the first third of my life, as far as I can remember it, I thought of corn as an attractive indicator of successfully retained agriculture (even when I realized it was "cow corn," as we called it in my childhood, rather than fresh corn for human food). As I studied agroecosystems in more detail and came to recognize the food landscapes I encountered in the context of their complex relationships, cornfields became a daunting manifestation of monocultural extractive landscapes, designed for the most efficient transformation of metabolic processes into industrial returns on investment. It has taken over a decade of further exploring corn—growing beautiful varieties in my garden, curating and exchanging gift corn with interesting stories and geographical histories—to learn to appreciate some of the further complexity beneath the surface of what appears to be a repellently stripped down productivist ecology.

The fertilizer factory has helped provide a similar entry point into stories of pastures, making me wonder how others see their complexity. If farmers are compelled to maximize the returns on their pastures such that they become "locked in," as those who study the production of scientific knowledge call it, to the whole system surrounding the relationship between particular kinds of livestock and particular kinds of pasturage (white clover and sheep, for example, despite the better contexts for nitrogen-fixing microbiota that red clover might provide), how can we invite someone just appreciating the pastoral landscape into the whole fascinating world of the political economy of agroecosystems, to debt, the models of nutrients and water flows and soil edaphon, and the many stories that govern how we orient ourselves amidst these complexities?

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