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relations around food with a gendered perspective for a food renaissance.

Cynthia Vagnetti

Michigan State University

East Lansing, MI 48824

Adanella Rossi

University of Pisa

Pisa, Italy


Media, food renaissan
ce, gendered perspective, farm women, social innovation, food


The modernization paradigm that once dominated the agro
food system narrative is being
replaced by a grammar of innovation. Cultural studies has played a role in the new under
of rurality and rural policy by suggesting a new conceptual framework for the agro
food system.
Within the last decade, among many

practitioners in agronomy, sociology, anthropology, agro
ecology, natural resources management and geography
a new d
iscussion has surfaced to assert
culture as the underlying or better yet central pillar to the tri
dimensional concept featuring the
interface between the environment, economic and social sustainability. By placing culture as the
epistemic core of developm
ent in agriculture and rural areas, situated knowledges are privileged.
The objective of this paper is to bring attention to the cultural constructs influencing practices
and the place where innovation occurs from case studies located in Upper Midwest, Uni
States. In particular, the paper aims to do two things:

1.) deepen the role of women in the development of innovative social practices around
food production
consumption, within the context of the well
known evolving innovative
food system (Marsd
en, 2000; Goodman, 2003).

2.) demonstrate the role of digital multimedia technology from the process of
documenting situated knowledges (Harding, 1987; Haraway, 1991 to consider how to
codify tacit knowledge (Kloppenburg 1991; Ploeg 1993; Wynne 1996; Fonte
, 2008).


Riley (2009) asserts. “the last three decades have seen a burgeoning of research on gender issues
within rural and agricultural contexts (Brandth 2002; Little and Panelli 2003). In the United
the once
invisible western farm w
oman (Sacks, 1983, Jellison, 1993, Neth, 1995, and
Shiva, 1999) is more likely to operate farms in small
scale sustainable agriculture models where
food is produced for local consumption. With the support of the sustainable agriculture
community women farm
ers across America have been empowered to develop their farming
knowledge. Cultural geographer Robert Netting (1993) asserts, “The farm household is a
repository of ecological knowledge of the specific microenvironments of the farmland.” The
farmers draw t
heir livelihood by putting trust in the biological world, which builds up their
how” of
One important aim of this research is to bring to life
farm women’s “know
how” that is useful to a society that needs to confront two
concerns: climate change and our national health care crisis. Recognizing that agriculture and


food represent a global challenge, understanding “how” and “why” more and more women
farmers are choosing achievable resource efficient farming systems is

not only a new perspective
but of utmost concern.

The increasing horizontal and vertical integration in agricultural production today has already
transformed communities and changed our understanding of the human relationship to food
production. Women f
armers have taken a leading role in developing and promoting alternative
farming techniques that sustain soil productivity, provide economic stability for farm families,
and maintain rural populations and community infrastructure. In particular, Evens and
(1996) have explored the role played by women in farm diversification. The primary data
collected in this research explores the diversity of individual values, attitudes and knowledges of
women who have chosen to make a living by forging a relations
hip with the land. They are farm
wives, single women, blacks, Hispanics, Asian and Native Americans.
Working the land is a key
way in which people shape ecosystems. The differences between men’s experiences and
women’s experiences, and knowledge in relatio
n to the environment is necessarily understood in
work practices. These women have
expand that knowledge of their work practices into the
market place. Moreover the market place is a public space to articulate their agency as farmers
and women (Treager, 20
04, pp. 290
The double nature of women farmers as
and as

uniquely situates them to determine livelihoods more suited to their talents.
Furthermore, innovative women farmers are shaping a new framework with regard to purchasing
ole food for cooking by scratch, to healthy choices and social implications of eating, to the
subsequent valorisation of short food supply chains which offer an alternative to a globalized
food system (Rossi 2009). Riley asserts, (2009),
“this attenti
on to women’s individual
agency has opened up space for a consideration of the active, and indeed evolving, role of
women in reinterpreting or challenging hegemonic structures” (Bennett 2004).

Another original contribution of the paper is the adoption of

digital media technology.

The methods for gathering data represent new media practices in ethnography to include
participant observation and construction of text through narrative analysis. Appropriate tools are
media to include digital video and di
gital audio recording technology as well as visuals to
include still photography and contextual video footage. The use of narrative analysis and the
integration of visuals into it underscores cultural analysis of human social practices and fits well
with t
he notion of situating culture as the epistemic core of development practices. Through this
methodological approach the communicative practices at the basis of social innovation are fully
valorised. Moreover it constitutes an effective tool to favour furth
er processes of communication
among the social actors, as well as to offer new ways to talk about situated knowledges and
codify tacit knowledge.

The resultant primary data was created in collaboration
with community
based organizations to
develop public
humanities programming. I will discuss the need to consider how Digital
Humanities lends itself as a repository for a variety of public venues to include documentary
video, readers’ theatre, exhibitions and multimedia essays. Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor

the first photographers to prove the value of this “photographic work for social research”
(Finnegan, 2003, p.96). Human inquiry starts

engagement with the reality of peoples’ lives
and how they live and experience them (Reason, 2006, p. 20). Ne
w Media technologies
privileges an ethnographer to create a rhetorical space to change the world by changing the way


we make visible nurturing and ongoing cultivation of relationships for collaborative inquiry with
and for the community (Denzin, 2002, p. 4
83). This rhetorical practice of researching embodied
of “iterative daily practices” is of interest in other disciplines
Political Science,
Coole (2006); Anthropology, Ingold (2000), Grasseni, (2009) and Low (2003); and Geography,
Carolan (200
8) and Edensor (2006).


Since 1991, as an artist and independent scholar, I traveled throughout America documenting
farmers and ranchers advancing farming practices that focus on renewable agriculture and food

I began this original research in
an effort to gather empirical data to add support and dimension to the “historical changes taking
place in agriculture.” The 1981 text,
With These Hands
, by Joan Jensen and the 1983 text,
visible Farmer: Women in Agricultural Production
, by Carolyn Sachs are important studies I
have drawn from.

The genesis of this project grew out of conversations with the Chippewa Valley Museum in Eau
Claire, Wisconsin and community
based organizations i
n Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and
Michigan. In 2001 the CVW was awarded NEH support for the implementation of a permanent
exhibition based on new scholarship regarding farm life in the United States. Late historian and
author Mary Neth was a project consul
tant who brought her expertise on rural life to the
development of the exhibition entitled “Country Places: Making a Way of Life”
Neth, in her
1985 seminal text,
Preserving the Family Farm: Women, Community, and the Foundations of
Agribusiness in the Midw
est, 1900
successfully questions dominant thought about the
inherent or natural value of "efficiency" and "development" in modern farming in the United
States. She does this by making gender, family, and local community central to her study.
of American Farm Women”
builds upon the interview questions from “Country Places”
and interweaves questions raised by Cornelia Butler Flora and Mart B. Chiappe in their peer
reviewed article “Gendered Dimensions of the Alternative Agriculture Paradigm” and

Hassanein in
Changing the Way America Farms.

The Women, Food and Agricultural Network (WFAN) is one of the emerging groups of women
farmers, activist, educators and academics in Iowa. In Treager (2009), Rural Sociologist Betty
Wells asserts, these
women are ‘dedicated to link and amplify women’s voices on issues of food
systems, sustainable communities, and environmental integrity’ (1998). While WFAN takes an
overly feminist outlook other farmer groups are empowering women to educate and agitate for

change in the production of food, protection of the environment, and the future of agriculture.
The community
based organizations taking part in this project are WFAN, the Land Stewardship
Project in Minnesota, Midwest Organic and sustainable Agriculture
in Wisconsin, and Michigan
Farmer’s Union in Michigan. Each of these not
profit organizations has developed a unique
relationship with their state land grant system, respectively Iowa State University, Minnesota
State University, University of Wisconsi
n, and Michigan State University. From Michigan State
University, DeLind and Ferguson (1999) underscore the movement towards community
supported agriculture as a social movement which I suggest could be considered a framework for
a renaissance for women’s
activities in public spaces.


This is a women
centered study with an aim to bring attention to the significant contributions
that women farmers make to social and cultural reproduction. The feminist framework I bring to
my scholarship is found in feminist

political ecology (FPE) which I find useful, given its focus
on gendered knowledge and everyday life in relationship to natural resources and the
environment (Rocheleau, Thoma
Slayter, and Wangari 1996). As have Bordo (1986) and
Harding (1986), I argue fo
r the validity of knowledge gained from the lived experience of
ordinary people in everyday life. As a graduate student learning how to do research, I must
disclose this project was created with an understanding to
generate both data and primary sources
r a narrative documentary video that is made

the community from which research
participants were drawn. Instinctively I knew that the majority of women’s contributions
throughout history have been ignored, as they do not fit the dominant metho
dologies in the
production of Western knowledge (Bordo 1986; Butler 1990, 1993; Merchant 1980; Rose 1996).
What I have learned in the four
year journey of a graduate student exploring ethnographic
research, is the importance to subvert my authority to tell

women farmer’s stories and to
recognize the privileged standpoint and power imbalances I bring to the relationships with my
research subjects (Naples with Sachs 2000; Wasserfall 1977).

Agriculture is the focal point for understanding the history of rural

America and the human
relationship to food production. Human inquiry starts

engagement with the reality of
peoples’ lives and how they live and experience them (Reason, 2006, p. 20). Through
participation and observation I paid attention to discursiv
e practices and the social situations in
which the process of making history through dialogue is performed. The performance of “verbal
arts” takes on different meanings within different disciplines of scholarship. Bauman (1974)
suggests verbal arts as perf
ormance is embodied and thus “involve embodied knowing, which
enhances women’s sense of their capacities as transforming agents” (Matthee 2004).This work
examines the “living knowledge” of contemporary women farmers through oral history
interviews. Chaney
(1994) asserts, “oral history has greatly contributed to our understanding of
the cultural construction of modern societies. According to Tonkin (1992), “to tell history is to
act in a verbal mode.” I framed the interview questions to get at the ‘know
and ‘know
that make living as agricultural producers possible. Through deliberate and active storytelling,
the importance of diverse knowledge by women farmers has been validated in nearly 100 hours
of interviews.

Drawing from the primary data of vi
deotaped interviews the social knowledge women farmers is
expressed and conveyed through narrative text. The text generated and selected from this project
gives greater recognition to the situated and embodied knowledge of the female subject,
knowledge about one’s personal history. against the larger. As one has negotiated
through contested spaces to reinvent ones identity through relational discourses. Hinchman and
Hinchman describe narratives as “discourses with a clear sequential order that
connect events in
a meaningful way for a definite audience and thus offer insights about the world and/or people’s
experiences of it” (1997). Like Hinchman and Hinchman (1997) I consider narratives as socially
situated interactive performances
as produced
in a particular setting, for a particular audience,
for particular purposes. A story told to me in a quiet relaxed setting will differ from the same
story told to a television reporter for a television news show, a social service counselor. More
y a story told to me at different time by the same person will be different and therefore
I engaged in no less than two interviews and sometimes three interviews with each individual.


The construction of each individual’s narrative is distinctly story dr
iven. Stories are a bridge
between the tacit and the explicit knowledge of women farmers. Stories not only recount past
events, they also convey the speaker’s moral attitude toward these events. In a single word or
phrase tacit knowledge is sometimes made
explicit or conveyed, as advised by the novelist, by
showing, rather than telling. As a researcher in narrative inquiry, I construct open
questions but I am always prepared to follow the narrator (interviewee) down unexpected paths,
always helping th
e narrator by questioning, guiding, coaxing and challenging. Therefore the
interview is co
created, co
embodied, specifically framed, contextually and intersubjectively
contingent. Pollack (2005) suggests the researcher insistent on doing through saying, w
meaning and ethics are actionable (p. 2). Narrative inquiry
requires careful listening to
watching of

the researched talking to each other in the natural scenes of their social life, where
“living knowledge” resides
. Polkinghorne (1989) and Salne
r (1989) assert, “knowledge can not
be separated from the knower, but rather is rooted in his or her mental or linguistic

designations of that world” (cited in Guba and Lincoln, 2005, p.71). “It is a world where multiple
knowledges can [do] coexi
st” (Guba and Lincoln, 1994, p.113).
For a discrete discussion on
dynamics of knowledge in the valorisation of local food see Fonte (2008).

Lemke (1998) explains meaning is not made with language alone. In speech it is accompanied by
gestural, postural, p
roxemic, situational and paralinguistic information. Videotapes obviously
contain a wealth of relevant visual information on gaze direction, facial expression, pointing and
other gestures, contextual artifacts referred to in the verbal text, positional gro
uping, relative
distances and directions, etc. Along with fieldnotes, they help us reconstruct the social situation
or cultural activity type within which some meanings of the verbal language are very much more
explicit than
others. For

useful discussions
on nonverbal communication, see (Kopsidou 2008;
Knapp and Hall, 2007; and Ottenheimer 2007). As Lemke maintains verbal data makes sense
only in relation to activity context and to other social events. Lemke (1998) adds, “wise
researchers preserve the origi
nal data in a form that can be re
analyzed or consulted again from a
different viewpoint, posing different questions” (p. 2).

Indeed Digital Humanities lends itself as a repository for ongoing scholarship. An inspiration to
my research and scholarship wit
hin the social science landscape are Dorothea Lange and Paul
Taylor. Known for their innovative work in “social reportage” under the U. S. Department of
Agriculture’s Farm Security administration, they were the first photographers to prove the value
of thi
s “photographic work for social research” (Finnegan, 2003, p.96). There is ongoing
research and scholarship exploring the technical construction and management of knowledge
through New Media technologies which I do not understand, however what I have made
is how New Media technologies are used as tools of engagement. As Ritchie asserts (1995), “the
interviews may be used for research or excerpted in a publication, radio, or video documentary,
museum exhibition, dramatization, or other form of public


The major part of the primary data was collected between 2001 and 2004 with a small amount of
funding ($30,000) to explore the situated experiences of contemporary women farmers living
across the American rural and urban landscape in the U
pper Midwest states of Michigan,
Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Funding was leveraged after a contract to create a traveling
was secured to develop a traveling photography exhibition by Mid
America Arts Alliance


ExhibitsUSA. Co
curated with Janet Dykema,
director of public programs at the Chippewa
Valley Museum in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the exhibition toured from September 2004
September 2009. In thirty black and white images with narrative text, the exhibit entitled,
“Voices of American Farm Women” includ
es original research developed between 1991 and
2000. The primary data includes 60
90 minute videotaped oral history interviews of over thirty
diverse women, black and white images, and contextual video. I own all of the original data, the
ExhibitsUSA exhi
bition, and have consent forms from all participants. The interviews are
transcribed and digitized in Quicktime format.


Thirty minute documentary narrative videos were created with and for community
organizations in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. I produced each documentary using
digital video editing software,
Final Cut Pro with a Mac P
rocessor. Each project was funded in
part by state humanities councils to create public programming addressing local concerns
through public dialogue. The public programs extended engagement that empowers project
participants by making visible marginalized

individuals. Equally important public programming
with scholars from various disciplines adds additional perspectives to the partial perspective I
bring from my (personal) standpoint. Frequently public programs included scholars from
anthropology, history

or biological sciences. As Pink (2001) asserts, “uses of hypermedia to
develop visual and multimedia representations of ethnography have already begun. Reflective
texts that combine video, still photography and written word provides researchers with scope

both acknowledge and represent different visual, written, academic and informant narratives and
voices, without necessarily privileging any of these” (Pink, 2001, p. 597).

With the recent availability of high quality digital video technologies a revi
sed interest in visual
research methods as qualitative work has been taken up by (Emmison and Smith, 2000; Bauer
and Gaskel, 2000: van Leeuwen and Jewitt, 2000: Rose, 2001, Ruby, 2000: Holliday, 2000;
Banks, 2001; and Pink 2001). It is not my intention to
enter into a critique of researchers who use
visual methods in anthropology or sociology. Rather as an emerging researcher and scholar in
Rhetoric and Communication I am privileged to draw from many disciplines in constructing a
methodology. With this flex
ibility I can entertain the notion of writing a standard dissertation
complemented with a hypermedia CD or DVD. What incites greater importance to me is to
maintain the ethical responsibility of the researcher as producer to “intentionally reveal to his o
her audience they underlying epistemological assumptions that caused him or her to formulate a
set of questions in a particular way, to seek answers to these questions in a particular way, and
finally, to present his or her findings in a particular way”
(Ruby, 2000, p. 156). In particular our
discipline encourages a shift from word
based thought to image
and sequence
based thought. As a seasoned documentary photographer and video storyteller I am able to take
control of the ethnographic visua
l text and communicate the story of the people studied as well
as the story of my own research. Rudy (2000) asserts, “in a reflective manner that permits
audiences to enjoy the cinematic illusion of verisimilitude without causing them to think they are
ing reality, then an anthropological cinema might be born” (278).




Research unfettered by hard and fast methods is a “process of coming to
know rooted in
everyday experiences, in Lyotard’s (1979) sense, a work of art emerging in the doing of it”.
Reason and Bradbury (2008) underscore Lyotard’s notion: knowledge is a verb rather than a
noun. While it is evident I draw my conclusions from actio
n research, there remains the question:
How do we come to know the culture within the sustainable agriculture paradigm? Rosaldo
(1993) asserts we come to know culture through collective stories: “culture resides not in explicit
formulations of the rituals
of daily life but in the practices of persons who, interacting with
others, take for granted an account of who they are and how they understand their fellows’
moves” Hyden White explains “…the best way to understand culture is to view it as if it were a
nguage” (231). Lyotard (1979) explains, knowledge, in the postmodern condition, is
contextualized and culture bound:

… what is meant by the term
is not only a set of denotative statements,
far from it. It also includes notions of ‘know how’, ‘kno
wing how to live’, ‘how
to listen” (savoir faire, savoir
vivre, savoir
ecouter), etc. Knowledge then is a
question of competence that goes beyond the simple determination and
application of the criterion of truth, extending to the determination and applica
of criteria of efficiency (technical qualification), of justice and/or happiness
(ethical wisdom), of the beauty of a sound or color (auditory and visual
sensibility), etc. Understood in this way, knowledge is what makes someone
capable of forming ‘go
od’ denotative utterances, but also ‘good’ prescriptive and
‘good’ evaluative utterances. It is not a competence relative to a particular class of
statements (for example cognitive ones) to the exclusion of all others. On

the contrary, it makes ‘good’ perf
ormances in relation to a variety of objects of
discourse possible: objects to be known, decided on, evaluated,

transformed ….
From this derives one of the principal features of knowledge: it coincides with an
extensive array of competence
building measure
s and is the only form embodied
in a subject constituted by the various areas of competence composing it…The
consensus that permits such knowledge to be circumscribed and makes it possible
to distinguish one who knows from one who doesn’t (the foreigner, t
he child) is
what constitutes the culture of a people (18


I propose the researcher/practitioner as producer of the ethnographic text with digital video
technologies is necessarily
adhering to an approach that builds on the notion of culture as
ive (Lindquist, 2002, p. 4).

Lastly, Pattie Lather endorses the notion to “be of use” which Reason (1996) underscores,
“quality research is about values and choices: Where can I place myself to be of the most use in
articulating what I stand for” (p. 21)
? My dissertation research will explore the “living
among farm families affiliated with
the “
Association for the Preservation of the
Modicana breed” (
Il Bue Rosso)
, in central Sardinia.
The creation of
Il Bue Rosso
exemplifies a small loca
l initiative which started with external financing.
Help from the
European Union to improve the quality of production and to assist in technical applications

stabilized livestock production. Now the community can focus on new innovations that will
ain and increase the production of the “
cheese by farm women in their homes.

Guarino (2009) presents her dissertation research in the paper “
Creating synergies: cooperatives
and associations against marginality, some evidence from Less Favoure
d Areas” which draws


attention to the communicative nature of knowledge production of Il Bue Rosso. As the
community renews its focus on the production of cheese, I

provide evidence that scholarship
with a “media toolbox’ makes visible the multifacete
d cultural processes of knowledge dynamics
and serves as a useful integrator in the timely diffusion of knowledge as it supports the complex
work of agricultural and economic development.


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Lisa French a Kansas farmer
helped me understand the
value of my work when she
shared her story with me in
1991. While chatting at her
farm located on the edge of
the great Kansas plains she

Our imagination is shaped
by our
cultural ideas of what
a farmer is. When I read my
children’s story books that
have to do with farmers
farmer is always a man and
his wife, even though she may
be working with him; she is
the farmer’s wife.”

Lisa French,

Partridge, Kansas