North American farmers manage massive soy farms in the Brazilian Cerrado from the clean offices off the dusty streets of Luis Eduardo Magalhães, Brazil. As they delegate field work to farmworkers, they focus on paperwork, managing investment capital, and satisfying the investors that control that capital. This comparative ethnographic article considers the agrarian values and farm life of the author's childhood on a small South Dakota farm alongside the experience of transnational soybean farmers in Brazil to understand the perception of good farming in two different contexts. This imaginary of the good farmer tells us about what behaviors are rewarded within farming communities and how farming behaviors become idealized. While “good farming” in 1980s South Dakota was measured by straight rows, high crop yields, and weed-free fields, good farming for transnational farmers is measured by efficiency, profit, and clean shirts. Transnational farmers center the farmer, not the field, as the site of aestheticizing as they disassociate from crops, work, and even land.
Agronomists and policy makers have proposed no-tillage practice and advocacy in the tropical savannah (Cerrado) of Brazil as a model for agriculture elsewhere. Building from intensive research with Embrapa and ethnographic research with two communities of transnational soy farmers, this paper explores the origins of no-tillage farming in the state of Paraná and the adoption and exploitation of no-tillage by large-scale farmers in the Cerrado of Brazil’s center-west. The spread of no-till was made possible by farmer innovation in Paraná, scientific research adapting the practice to the tropics, and and heavy application of chemical herbicides to control weeds without manual cultivation and intense soil fertility amendments in order to make the Cerrado productive for industrial agriculture. Small-scale Mennonites in the state of Goiás adopted it as an emergency measure to save their land base and compete with neighboring Brazilian farmers; large-scale family farmers from the U.S. adopted no-till to save on labor expense and reduce their liability in the face of labor laws. This indicates that while no-till in Brazil reduces soil erosion and is not a problem in itself, it emerges from a context of socio-technical fixes and its implementation supports farm profitability and agricultural expansion in the Cerrado.
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2018. “Farming out of place: Transnational family farmers, flexible farming, and the rupture of rural life in Bahia, Brazil.” American Ethnologist. 45 (3): 317-329. Preprint: https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/58723
North American soybean farmers have responded to farmland inaccessibility in the US Midwest by purchasing and operating large soybean farms in western Bahia, Brazil. They have turned to “flexible farming” and flexible crops, labor, and land that are commodified, replaceable, and alienated from social and physical relations. Nevertheless, temporalities of farming survive, redefined in terms of progress and backwardness, and new materialities and models of farming emerge. This emergent agrarianism is flexible in terms of fungible means of production and farmer subjectivities that push the boundaries of “family farming.” The detachment and mobility of things and people in global agricultural production disrupts rural life and generates values and practices as farmers engage with the land and make meaning out of transnational farming.
This article describes the financialization of work, value, and social organization in a transnational community of soy farmers in the Brazilian Cerrado. This community originally migrated from the US Midwest to the Brazilian Cerrado in search of large tracts of cheap and productive land. While these farmers migrated to Brazil in pursuit of the reproduction of farming livelihoods and values, they adopted new forms of work, new values of farming, and new social organization on the farm. Based on fourteen months of ethnographic research on two transnational soy‐farming communities in Brazil, this article analyzes the operations of capital and the emergence of financialized farming. US family farmers purchased massive tracts of Brazilian farmland for soy production, often financed by neighboring farmer‐investors, and transitioned from mid‐scale farmers to large‐scale farm managers. This transition entailed a shift in forms of work from the field to the office and a corporatization of the farm decision‐making process, shifting from family centered to investor centered. Consequently, farmers placed less value on traditional measures of a good farmer, such as yield, and greater value on financialized measures of a good farmer, including return on investment, land acquisition, and accounting practices. This research supports the framework of financialization as a situated process that emerges out of practice and reworks economic and social organization.
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2016. “Farming is Easy, Becoming Brazilian is Hard: North American Soy Farmers’ Social Values of Production, Work, and Land in Soylandia,” Journal of Peasant Studies. 43 (2): 442-460.
Since the late 1980s, North American farmers have been migrating to Brazil to produce soybeans and escape a general farm crisis in the United States. This paper analyzes their work, values, social relations and relations with the land in order to understand transnational farming and agrarian change from the perspective of transnational farmers. North Americans’ migration to Brazil and soy production in Brazil can inform our understanding of the mechanisms of the soy boom and unpack the relative significance of social values at play in intensive, technified and financialized agriculture. It also provides an evocative perspective of the soy boom as it engages with issues of transnationalism, crisis, migration and change in business and farming practices. Using ethnographic data, this paper explores the intimate and emerging realities of agrarian change by detailing four elements of transnational farming – migration, farm management, land use and work – through the narration of three farmers’ career histories. These cases address the transformation of social values of work, land and social relations through the processes of migration and agrarian change. Farmers’ work, it is found, emerges out of an entanglement of regulations, expertise, meanings of work and land, worker relations and the political economy of Brazil and the United States.
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2012. “The Construction of an Alternative Quinoa Economy: Balancing Solidarity, Household Needs, and Profit in San Agustín, Bolivia.” Journal of Agriculture and Human Values 29 (4): 441-454
Quinoa farmers in San Agustin, Bolivia face the dilemma of producing for a growing international market while defending their community interests and resources, meeting their basic household needs, and making a profit. Farmers responded to a changing market in the 1970s by creating committees in defense of quinoa and farmer cooperatives to represent their interests and maximize economic returns. Today farmer cooperatives offer high, stable prices, politically represent farmers, and are major quinoa exporters, but intermediaries continue to play an important role in the local economy. Meanwhile, some farmers rebuff the national cooperatives and intermediaries in favor of a denomination of origin and closer association with local cooperatives. This article, based on 4 months of ethnographic research, explores the reasons for the continued presence of intermediaries on the market landscape and how farmers have worked to create a quinoa economy embedded with fair trade values. Farmers demand stable prices, flexible standards, provision of services, and promises of maintaining the distinctive qualities of San Agustin quinoa. They frame their trades in economic, utility, and solidarity terms to reflect their livelihood strategies, farming capabilities, and personal concepts of fair trade. Meanwhile cooperatives, development initiatives, and intermediaries each argue that their particular buying practices allow farmers to attain household goods, credit, and cash for food and economic security.
Farmers and activists in the Los Lipez region of Bolivia have created a symbolic commons that links their identity, quinoa crop, and work. Since 2005, farmers have worked with regional activists and marketers to create a denomination of origin in order to project their work and connection with quinoa into international markets for their crop.Yet sales certified with the denomination of origin trademark have not significantly displaced other sales to buyers for the national cooperatives or to local intermediaries. Based on 4 months of ethnographic research with growers, local resellers, and leaders of the denomination of origin initiative, this case documents how the Bolivian quinoa market is a composite of varied market channels, interests, and values that inhibit the full realization of any single development approach. However, the complexity that actor agency introduces into commodity circulation results in earnings at different scales, the movement of multiple qualities of quinoa, transactions in formal and informal settings, and a more resilient life sphere of agricultural production.
Book chapters/ Encyclopedia Entries
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2019. “Transmission of the Brazil Model of Industrial Soybean Production: A Comparative Study of Two Migrant Farming Communities in the Brazilian Cerrado.” In In Defense of Farmers: The Future of Agriculture in the Shadow of Corporate Power (eds. Jane W. Gibson and Sara E. Alexander) Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press (289-324).
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2018. “Farming is Easy, Becoming Brazilian is Hard: North American Soy Farmers’ Social Values of Production, Work, and Land in Soylandia,” In Soy, Globalization, and Environmental Politics in South America (Eds. Gustavo Oliveira and Susanna Hecht). London, Routledge (192-210).
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2017. “Encounters with the Brazilian Soy Boom: Transnational farmers and the Cerrado.” In Food, Agriculture, and Social Change: The Everyday Vitality of Latin America (Eds. Stephen Sherwood, Alberto Arce, and Myriam Paredes). London: Earthscan (60-72).
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2017. “From US Farm Crisis to the Cerrado Soy Frontier: Financializing Farming and Exporting Farmers.” In Land Justice: Re-imagining Land, Food, and the Commons. (Eds. Eric Holt-Gimenez and Justine Williams). Oakland: Food First (174-190).
book reviews/Non-peer-reviewed work
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2016. Food Systems in an Unequal World: Pesticides, Vegetables, and Agrarian Capitalism in Costa Rica. Ryan E. Galt. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2014; The Journal of Agriculture and Human Values.
Ofstehage, Andrew. 2015. The Struggle for Maize: Campesinos, Workers, and Transgenic Corn in the Mexican Countryside. Elizabeth Fitting. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011; The Anthropology of Work Review 36(1): 41-42