Jab Your Ethics

I am a fully vaccinated pragmatic anarchist agroecologist and I want to explain how I got here to help those who, like me, have a healthy skepticism for authority and a strong ethic of care and responsibility for others, as you make important decisions around vaccination against COVID-19.

I had my first baby in 1999, and like many new mothers, I struggled with the often conflicting array of information around everything from co-sleeping and breastfeeding to whether and when to vaccinate. The internet was still pretty new, but there was already a lot of information available in a horizontal peer-to-peer manner unheard of until the World Wide Web democratized information sharing. For a curious well-educated Earth mama type, the internet seemed like a gold mine of ‘alternative’ information that suited my anti-establishment ways, but also fed my confirmation bias when I let my guard down.

In my pre-natal research, I learned the importance of vaccination for public health—that we protect everyone, but especially our most vulnerable, by creating herd immunity with vaccines. I also started reading about adverse vaccine reactions, and as I grew Oscar inside my very own body I struggled with what seemed like an unacceptable trade off to protect public health—other people that is—by knowingly injecting something into my healthy baby that carries a small but frightening risk of injuring or even killing him. I read scientific papers and natural parenting websites, hung out in online chat rooms, and talked with all the mothers I knew about what felt like the most overwhelming and important first decision as a parent.

The vaccination schedule called for the first shot to be given for Hepatitis B before we would even leave the birthing centre, a disease primarily transmitted through unprotected sex or sharing needles. At two months, another raft of vaccines were on the schedule for DTP (diptheria, tetanus, and pertussis/whooping cough), polio, and Hib. At four months, three more jabs. At six, three more. At 12 months, the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and a Hib booster. At 18 months, two more shots. By the time Oscar was 18 months old, he would have had 14 separate injections to vaccinate him against eight diseases. To a new mother, that can sound pretty alarming.

The situation was made worse because in 1998 a report was released by Wakefield, et al claiming that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. I went well down the rabbit hole reading everything I could to find out how serious this risk would be for my baby. A disproportionate amount of self-selected material from the natural parenting genre told me vaccines are dangerous. The scientific literature mostly said they carry very low risk of adverse reactions, but the risk exists. Scientific reports also demonstrate repeatedly that vaccines save thousands of lives every year, and that when vaccination rates go down due to the spread of scary misinformation, illness and death rates go up.

The Wakefield report was found to be fraudulent in 2010 (stripping Wakefield himself of his license to practice). In spite of its fraudulent influence on my and thousands of others’ thinking, I managed to read enough diverse and credible sources on vaccination to come to the decision to vaccinate our children, albeit at a slightly delayed and more spread out schedule. This was informed by the privileged fact that I stayed at home with our children in their first years, and they were not put into child care or any other crowded environment where illness spreads readily. The vaccination schedule is written to ensure all children have access to vaccines to account for a diversity of living situations, including child care attendance or a low-income parent’s capacity to readily access maternal and child health services in the early years.

It is also designed to ensure the most vulnerable in our communities—First Nations Peoples, immuno-compromised, pregnant women and babies, the elderly, and low-income communities who disproportionately suffer from underlying health conditions—are protected by broad herd immunity achieved by vaccinating those of us able to be vaccinated.

My decision to vaccinate our children was both well and poorly informed by the ‘research’ I did. My research was really just a survey of the literature—the scientists had conducted the medical research and reported their findings. Anti or pro-vaccination literature written by people without scientific training is rhetorical at best, fraudulent at worst. Even this piece I’m writing for you now is not trying to make a scientific argument, I’m sharing my story to offer the moral, emotional, and pragmatic steps I took to decide to vaccinate that led me to my second Pfizer jab today to protect myself and others in and beyond our community against COVID-19.

Back in 1999, as I weighed up the risks to my first baby against the risks to many more people in an unvaccinated population, I came down on the side of the public good. I rejected the individualist concern that would put my or my baby’s interests ahead of the collective. I did that for everyone, but especially for the vulnerable, because I also knew that although my children were privileged to have a healthy stay-at-home mother obsessed with organic produce and cooking three times a day, that is not many other peoples’ reality.

Kombu-merri woman and philosopher Mary Graham talks about the difference between the survivalist ethic of settler society and the relational ethic of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples. While I think the survivalist ethic is fairly self-explanatory, the relational ethic embraces complex kinships with other humans and also the non-human world, beginning with the Land from which we all come. A custodial ethic is born of this complex understanding of relationality—how we are all related to everything—and it leaves no room to look after oneself at the expense of others. The collective of human and non-human actors and Land is more important than individual concerns.

The burden of colonial disease started with smallpox and currently manifests as COVID and a plethora of non-communicable diseases preventable by ensuring access to secure and safe housing, nutritious and culturally-appropriate food, right livelihoods, and no history of inter-generational trauma. Colonisers brought the smallpox and in some cases intentionally spread it to eradicate Indigenous Peoples here in Australia and other colonized countries—genocide via disease transmission amongst other violent means.

Voluntary refusal to vaccinate is to my mind a continuation of the colonial legacy of lack of care for the First Peoples of this Land. It signals a level of privilege that you have a choice whether to protect yourself from the dangers of COVID by staying safe at home or otherwise in low-risk environments, unlike the essential workers in health care, meat processing facilities, and supermarkets.

Here at Jonai Farms, we’re in a very safe and secure environment with limited exposure to areas likely to host infection, and we are all double vaccinated. Our values and decision making that prioritise justice, equity, and health for all made the choice to vaccinate inevitable. We talked about our early nervousness about a new vaccine for a novel coronavirus and accepted that it was a normal emotional response to a global pandemic, and that we should all be vaccinated.

For some people, mistrust of authority is a driving motivation against vaccination. I have spent a lifetime fighting against government overreach, and engaging in ‘anarchist calisthenics’—I cross the road against the light when there is no traffic in long sight, and I may choose to ignore rules when there is no material impact potentially inflicted on others. I have devoted my life to lobbying governments at all levels from local to global to bring about reforms so that everyone can live in an ecologically-sound and socially-just world.

At the same time, I conform with laws that protect the public good such as speed limits and preventing foodborne illnesses by following a stringent food safety regime in our on-farm butcher’s shop. We do things the government tells us to all the time, but the government shouldn’t even have to tell us to protect our fellow travelers on this earth with the tried and true practice of getting vaccinated against deadly diseases if you can.

And while I’m not here to dump data on this discussion, the rates of illness and death amongst the unvaccinated as compared with the vaccinated speak for themselves. The risk of adverse reactions to the vaccines are far lower than the risk of contracting COVID or suffering serious complications, and to suggest otherwise is wilfully misleading in the face of the overwhelming global evidence since March 2020. If the risk to you personally is low, think about your grandparents, and think about Aboriginal People in remote communities. Think about the man having a heart attack or the child who was in a car accident on their way to a hospital overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID patients. Nobody is expendable.

I am a fully vaccinated pragmatic anarchist agroecologist, and I hope this helps more people to get over fears or mistrust of authority, and to put others in and beyond your community first.

Farmers, First Peoples, and Biodiversity

The following text is adapted from a talk I gave as part of the 2021 Wimmera Biodiversity Seminar series, entitled Farming, First Peoples, and Biodiversity: A Life in Common with Nature.

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I’m writing from the lands of the Dja Dja Wurrung, and I’d like to pay my respects to their elders past and present, and acknowledge that their land was never ceded. We are listening and learning from the Land, and the Djaara and other First Peoples how to enact a custodial ethic in all that we do here.

I’m going to briefly review some of the worst consequences of capitalist industrial agriculture for biodiversity before turning to agroecological solutions.

Biodiversity for food and agriculture is all the plants and animals – wild and domesticated – that provide food, feed, fuel and fibre. It is also the myriad of organisms that support food production through ecosystem services – called “associated biodiversity” in policy speak. This includes all the plants, animals and micro-organisms (such as insects, bats, birds, mangroves, corals, seagrasses, earthworms, soil-dwelling fungi and bacteria) that keep soils fertile, pollinate plants, purify water and air, keep fish and trees healthy, and fight crop and livestock pests and diseases.

In 2019 the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN released the first Global Assessment of Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture. The report found that ‘many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species, and ecosystem levels are in decline’ and that ‘evidence suggests that the proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing’.

For too long, biodiversity has been considered incompatible with agriculture – something that happens on the other side of the fence, or only in shelter belts. Even the current work by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) towards a post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework takes a productivist approach in its limited attention to agriculture, and a colonial approach to conservation in proposals to lock up more land away from sustainable human use – this is a fundamental violation of First Peoples’ right to land and denial of the thousands of years of care and co-production with Nature.

Australia is among the top seven countries worldwide responsible for 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss between 1996 and 2008, and we are now facing the sixth mass extinction event in 4.6 billion years (Muir 2014).

Agricultural biodiversity globally is disappearing rapidly, as industrial agriculture, forestry, and fisheries systems use homogeneous, proprietary seeds, trees, breeds and aquatic species, scientifically bred and genetically modified to include limited traits, which are useful to industry. They are grown in simplified agroecosystems that are heavily contaminated with biocides and other agrochemicals. 

Of some 6,000 plant species cultivated for food, fewer than 200 contribute substantially to global food output, and only nine account for 66 percent of total crop production.

The world’s livestock production is based on about 40 animal species, with only a handful providing the vast majority of meat, milk and eggs. Of the 7,745 local breeds of livestock reported globally, 26 percent are at risk of extinction.

Nearly a third of fish stocks are overfished, more than half have reached their sustainable limit.

Wild food species and many species that contribute to ecosystem services that are vital to food and agriculture, including pollinators, soil organisms and natural enemies of pests, are rapidly disappearing.

It is timely in this period of COVID to remind ourselves of the risks of these extreme losses of biodiversity in agriculture. The production of a constantly narrowing range of species and breeds of animals and plants is leading to greater risks in our food system. In the case of the rise of zoonoses like coronavirus, one of the most significant risks is from intensive livestock production, and the expansion of industrial agriculture into remote areas of forest, giving rare pathogens new opportunities to access vulnerable hosts, giving rise to new and more virulent strains of influenza and coronaviruses such as COVID-19.

Some of the key risks posed by intensive livestock production include: the separation of breeding animals from farms where their offspring are raised and later harvested for food, and the narrowing of genetic resources to very few breeds of genetically similar animals that are then crowded into unhealthy conditions that suppress their immune systems. This creates the perfect breeding ground for illness – these intensive sheds are literally ‘food for flu’.

Biodiversity-friendly practices are on the rise

The good news is that the FAO report highlights a growing interest in biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches. 80 percent of the 91 countries indicate using one or more biodiversity-friendly practices and approaches such as: organic agriculture, integrated pest management, conservation agriculture, sustainable soil management, agroecology, sustainable forest management, agroforestry, diversification practices in aquaculture, ecosystem approach to fisheries and ecosystem restoration.

While most have surely heard of regenerative agriculture, agroecology is much less known or understood in Australia. Agroecology is a science, a set of practices, and a social movement that fosters the democratic participation of farmers in the food system. I briefly mention this distinction to show that agroecological and regenerative farmers are all working to recuperate ecosystems from centuries of colonial damage, but also to highlight that the agroecology movement is underpinned by notions of social and economic justice as well – putting solidarity with Indigenous Peoples first, and solidarity economies that reject corporate power and capitalism next.

A Custodial Ethic

There is an ancient ‘custodial ethic’ amongst Indigenous Peoples and peasants globally, and a growing one amongst agroecological and regenerative farmers in the Global North, stemming from place-based understandings of country, reactions to climate change and loss of biodiversity, and an increasing willingness to grapple with what it means to hold title to the unceded lands of First Peoples (while working out local strategies to ‘pay the rent’, share land, or give land back to its Original Custodians). I want to share a couple of examples of farmers and First Peoples collaborating on Country and furthering the agroecological transition with you here in Australia.

Nguuruu Farm is a diverse biodynamic farm of 220 acres on Ngunnawal land in the southern tablelands of NSW, with heritage breed Belted Galloway cattle, and rare breed Silver Grey Dorking chickens and eggs, fruits and vegetables. Murray and Michelle have shared that they are making a part of their land available to local Indigenous custodians ‘for bush tucker, a native nursery, agroforestry for traditional implements, a cool burn school, or perhaps a place for guided tours. Could be all of those things, or something else.’

They wrote that ‘the partnership is struck and governed under “Yindyamarra” – the Wiradjuri lore of respect for all things. It means to ‘go slow, be patient, take responsibility, and give respect’. They are engaging in a relationalism intrinsic to much Aboriginal political ordering, a way of knowing and being where the very land is the Law, and one’s relationship to it is based on a mutualism that creates an ethical impulse to care for Country and everything on it. Embracing these ways of knowing is a critical and much-needed step in the right direction for agriculture in Australia.

Millpost Farm, also in the southern tablelands of NSW, transitioned a family sheep farm to a broadacre permaculture farm in the late 1970s. They produce wool and a small offering of organic garlic and tomatoes in addition to providing most of their own food for three generations living together on the farm. Millpost have also been working to make the land to which they hold title available to Ngunawal/Ngambri mob to reconnect with their ancestral country, while also providing access to researchers to a stone axe quarry identified on the farm. Guided by the local mob, the Watson family then provide guidance to academics on how to protect a sacred place while letting it be appreciated as a cultural place for the Original Custodians.

Our farm – Jonai Farms and Meatsmiths – is an agroecological example of a circular bioeconomy working to enact our custodial ethic. We are a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm, with pastured heritage breed Large Black pigs, Speckleline cattle and purple hard-necked garlic.

Livestock are fed so-called ‘waste’ – surplus, damaged, or unwanted produce from other food and agriculture systems in Victoria (e.g. brewers’ grain, eggs, milk), creating a net ecological benefit by diverting many tonnes of organic waste from landfill, and exiting the fossil-fuel-intensive model of segregating feed production from livestock farming.

Water is moved around the property by old piston pumps powered by secondhand solar panels via treadmill motors salvaged from the local tip, as the farm strives to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.

While animals are slaughtered off site, carcasses are returned for further processing and value adding in the on-farm butcher’s shop and commercial kitchen. I lead a small team to produce a range of fresh cuts, and smallgoods including ham, bacon, and seasonal sausages with nothing but salt, pepper, and ingredients grown here or by neighbouring farms. Pigs’ heads become pâté de tête, excess fat makes beautiful soap, and bones are transformed into bone broth. Bones that remain are then pyrolised in a retort. They are super-heated in a low-oxygen environment to create bonechar – a kind of charcoal of bones that maintains the carbon as well as trace minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium, which is then activated in barrels of biofertiliser and used to grow our small commercial crop of garlic.

95% of produce is sold to 80 household CSA members in Melbourne and the region, who commit to a minimum of one year, sharing the abundance and the risks of the farm in a genuine solidarity economy, and the small remainder is sold through the farm gate shop.

Like millions of other smallholders around the world, we are maintaining biodiversity at the genetic, species, and ecosystem levels—living a life made in common with Nature, we conserve and sustainably use the biodiversity in our care, and share the benefits of our sustainable use with the Original Custodians by paying the rent.

The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) recently established the Agroecology Action Research Network and we are working on a concept for a de-Centre for Agrarian Futures here at Jonai Farms.

AFSA is also launching our First Peoples First Strategy at this year’s Food Sovereignty Convergence, which aims to concomitantly achieve both Indigenous sovereignty and food sovereignty for all. We are working with farmers and allies who are embracing and espousing a custodial ethic to understand how they/we are currently or may in the future be able to extend care for Land to care for its Original Custodians, bringing settler descendants full circle to find ways and means of restitution of land and rights to First Peoples.

There are various complexities involved in settler descendants being on this land. To consciously think of oneself as a settler means being conscious that we live on an Indigenous People’s Land. Importantly for the food sovereignty movement, this carries with it an obligation to support those defending their homelands, and to support ongoing attempts to unsettle the settler conscience by staying with the trouble of colonialism (Haraway 2016).

In my experience, there is often an unwarranted generosity from First Peoples in Australia towards settler descendants and other more recent migrants in the face of ongoing colonisation of unceded Aboriginal lands – a generosity Indigenous scholars have written is born of the same ways-of-being at the root of the custodial ethic. Mary Graham, a Kombumerri person, and her settler colleague Morgan Brigg (2021) recommend moving forward with ‘autonomous regard’ between Indigenous and settler peoples, ‘which can be an ethical relation that acknowledges and sits with the brutality of dispossession through settler colonialism.’

We know as a historically and currently non-Indigenous led organisation, AFSA’s National Committee and our members still have a lot of deep listening, learning and acting to do.

AFSA has worked for 10 years in solidarity with the global food sovereignty movement to assert everyone’s right to nutritious and culturally-determined food grown and distributed in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems. We invite you to join us in our work to be active in our own optimism in these challenging times.

Raising rare-breed livestock: A counter-hegemonic project towards an agroecological transition in Australia

This blog started in 2006 as a place to record my musings as I undertook a PhD in cultural studies around practices of consumption (which I did not finish). 15 years later, this is my first post of a new PhD project in anthropology focusing on practices of production – how some farmers are working to radically transform the food system from the ground up.

Below is the minimally edited text of the research proposal seminar I delivered last Friday as a milestone for my PhD at UWA. Feedback welcome. 🙂

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I’m sharing this today from unceded Dja Dja Wurrung country in the central highlands of Victoria, the traditional and ongoing lands of the Jaara people, to whose elders past, present, and emerging I pay my respects. I’d also like to pay my respects to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders reading this.

The development of agriculture over the past 12,000 years resulted eventually in what James Scott argues is ‘a contraction of our species’ attention to and practical knowledge of the natural world, a contraction of diet, a contraction of space, and perhaps a contraction, as well, in the breadth of ritual life’ (Scott 2017: 87). As a farmer myself, I find this description of my livelihood somewhat alarming.

Much later, monotheistic religions grew on foundational discourses of human dominion over nature, contributing to the move from more ecologically-sensitive traditional farming practices to the highly mechanised conventions of capitalist industrialised agriculture. This latter form of agriculture has systematised human mastery over nature (Tsing 2012) with devastating consequences, including the sixth mass extinction event in 4.6 billion years (Muir 2014).

In 2019 the UN reported that ‘many key components of biodiversity for food and agriculture at genetic, species, and ecosystem levels are in decline’ and that ‘evidence suggests that the proportion of livestock breeds at risk of extinction is increasing’ (FAO 2019: xxxviii). In Australia as elsewhere, the rise of fast-growing, high-yielding industrial genetics has led to a concurrent loss of rare- and heritage-breed livestock. While there is a movement to preserve heritage breeds led by the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia, it is still relatively nascent and unsupported by government policy (Jonas 2017; Iles 2020).

There is in fact a notable lack of research in Australia on the importance of biodiversity in agriculture (Walton 2019). Recent initiatives such as the Australian Farm Biodiversity Certification Scheme Trial funded by the Federal Government and run by the National Farmers Federation (NFF 2018) demonstrate all too clearly how far Australia has to go in understanding the urgent need for a transformation of agriculture, as to date it does not even explicitly include any focus on increasing biodiversity in agricultural produce, only in the landscape surrounding production areas. That is, in work concerned with the loss of biodiversity in agriculture in Australia, none of it appears to be concerned with the loss of biodiversity in the food we grow and eat, and very little addresses the biodiversity in the soil in which it is grown, which we increasingly understand to be of critical importance to all life.

Happily, my PhD is part of a larger project funded by a DECRA grant entitled ‘Raising Rare Breeds: Domestication, Extinction and Meat in the Anthropocene’, led by my principal supervisor Dr Catie Gressier, which aims to address this dearth of research through developing greater understandings of rare and heritage breed farming across Australia.  

My involvement in the broader project around rare breeds is born of my life as a former vegetarian tree-hugging greenie turned pig-farming butcher tree-hugging greenie. My husband and I farm on the ancient volcanic soils of Dja Dja Wurrung country, the traditional and unceded lands of the Jaara people. We moved here a decade ago, motivated by our desire to help grow the movement of ethical and ecologically-sound livestock farmers in Australia. Inspired by the rare breed movement and its biodiverse values, we chose to raise heritage-breed Large Black pigs and a variety of heritage and modern-breed cattle on pasture to fulfil this goal. We were strongly driven by our ethics to raise animals in a high welfare system on pasture, only later coming to realize the full complexity of ecological, social, and political entanglements our path would reveal.

While most these days have heard of regenerative agriculture, agroecology is much less known or understood. A science, a set of practices, and a social movement, agroecology is fundamental to this project (Wezel, Bellon & Doré 2009), with its attention to the role of animals in agroecosystems, the importance of biodiversity, and the socialities of agroecological farmers. Broadly speaking, agroecology is a scientifically and experientially justified practice of agriculture in ways that are sensitive to the ecosystems in which it is situated and that fosters the democratic participation of farmers in the food system.

While non-indigenous farmers who identify as ‘regenerative’ or ‘agroecological’ promote their/our innovations on social media, at conferences, and during farmer field days, Altieri & Holt-Gimenez (2016: 2) remind us that ‘the true roots of agroecology lie in the ecological rationale of indigenous and peasant agriculture still prevalent…’ and the UN provides empirical evidence that, globally, Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the best custodians of biodiversity (FAO 2019; IPBES 2019), emphasising the need to look to Indigenous knowledges, and to respect the customary laws and sovereignty of Australia’s First Peoples.

As we have deepened our experience and knowledge of Dja Dja Wurrung country in our relatively short time as custodians, we have also come to better understand the compelling need to ‘decolonize ourselves’ (Land 2015), and to affirm solidarity with First Peoples in order to grow a future for Australia that is ecologically sustainable and socially just for all. Indigenous Knowledges scholar Tyson Yunkaporta (2019: 19) of the Apalech clan of Far North Queensland asserts, ‘We rarely see global sustainability issues addressed using Indigenous perspectives and knowledges. […] It is always about the what and never about the how’.

With interest in Yunkaporta’s ‘how’, the project aims to examine the ways in which Australia’s ‘new peasantry’ (van der Ploeg 2017) can be informed by Indigenous epistemologies and ontologies to combat and adapt to climate change. I ask:

How can small-scale farmers inhabit and care for land in such a way as to maintain healthy agroecosystems and their human and nonhuman communities, while advancing Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty?

What are the discrepancies, and what convergence in Indigenous and non-Indigenous epistemologies is needed (and possible) (Plumwood 2005)?

I aim to contribute to the movement of small-scale non-indigenous farmers as they/we come to terms with our colonial privilege through a process of critical self-reflection alongside ‘public political ally work’ (Land 2015: 164) supporting Indigenous struggles, and to actively promote the ecologically sustainable and socially just work I find.

To explain why I use the term ‘peasant’ in Australia – a country with no history of a peasantry, the 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas defines a peasant such as to include Australian smallholders:

any person who engages or who seeks to engage alone, or in association with others or as a community, in small-scale agricultural production for subsistence and/or for the market, and who relies significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, on family or household labour and other non-monetized ways of organizing labour, and who has a special dependency on and attachment to the land.

Given my position as a farmer-activist-scholar deeply embedded in the communities of interest to this project, I will undertake multi-sited ethnography as an insider anthropologist. The fieldwork with farmers will be guided by the following broad questions:

  • Why do some farmers choose rare and heritage breeds of livestock?
  • How are these farmers fostering biodiversity and multi-species flourishings?
  • How and where are these farmers accessing agroecological knowledge and experience?
  • Why and how are farmers engaging with local Aboriginal people and their ecological knowledge? (Do they engage with the local Jaara people, or with others outside our bioregion? Directly or indirectly – why?)
  • What are the constraints and enablers of agroecological farming with rare and heritage breeds? (genetic, technical, legislative, economic, social, ecological)

Three farms will be chosen in the central highlands of Victoria (Dja Dja Wurrung country) for participant observation, based on criteria that they grow rare breed cattle and/or pigs for the commercial sale of meat and/or dairy, and that they sell their produce through direct channels. In addition to participant observation, interviews will be conducted with semi-structured questions designed to elucidate data ranging from the values and paradigms that shape the farmers’ actions, through the everyday practices of rearing heritage breed livestock, to farmers’ relationships with other farmers, those who buy their produce, local Aboriginal peoples, and the state. Questions will also focus on the extent to which the farmers are collectivised – are they associated with agroecology and food sovereignty as a social movement, do they belong to any local, regional, or national organisations, and if so, to what end? Observations of land and water use and health, animal husbandry practices and perceptions of animal welfare will help achieve the aims of the project.

Focus group discussions with more farmers of rare and heritage breeds within and outside my region will also be held online and in person, with some questions adapted from the semi-structured interviews with my key participant farmers. Drawing on the work recounted in Chambers (1989) on ‘reality mapping’ and ‘ecological mapping’ undertaken with farmers in the Global South, farmers in focus groups will be asked to draw a politico-biocultural map of their farms to gain insights into their perspectives on the ecological, social, and political contexts in which they farm.

One of the questions that orients my research is revealing the experiences of other heritage-breed livestock farmers:

What is the relationship between a focus on breed conservation and an awareness of the importance of greater biodiversity at all levels of food and agriculture systems?

By examining the grounded practices, decision-making processes, and stated values of farmers who raise rare- and heritage-breed livestock – exotic non-industrial counter-hegemonic animals – this project seeks to uncover the paradigms farmers bring to their work.

What underpins the decision to raise slow-growing, low-yielding animals to earn a livelihood?

Does the choice to raise rare and heritage breeds sit alongside other values and practices that support more ‘multispecies flourishings’ (Haraway 2016) on farms?

A guiding theme will be to ask how farmers are responding to the burden of responsibility carried by the ‘human condition of living with and for others’ (Bird 2004) as they negotiate entanglements with country and human and nonhuman animals. Yunkaporta (2020) asserts the importance of Aboriginal social structures in achieving sensitive community and land management, describing his clan as, ‘autonomous individuals syndicated together in a collective’. With this framing in mind, I seek to understand the importance of existing connections amongst autonomous small-scale farmers that contribute to cultural and ecological reparations and social organisation, and to learn what collaborative and deliberate practices they engage in to diversify breeds (and grasses and crops) within the region, and to advocate for agroecology-friendly policies. I further aim to identify pathways towards a place-based co-management of Aboriginal lands so damaged by colonial mining and agriculture that the Jaara people call it ‘upside down country’ (Dja Dja Wurrung 2016).

My project is in part a response to the UN’s critical assessment of biodiversity loss and its recommendations, which identified the need to conserve breeds as well as the need for multidisciplinary research to understand the role of greater biodiversity in agriculture more broadly. It is also a continuation of a lifetime concern about the treatment of animals in agriculture, and a long history of food sovereignty activism that ultimately led me to where I now farm with Stuart and a like-minded community that has glimmers of Yunkaporta’s ‘autonomous individuals syndicated together in a collective’.

Ultimately, my project aims to identify the ecological, social, and political factors that contribute to the successful practice of agroecology in Australia. My specific focus is on the practice of raising rare- and heritage-breed pigs and cattle in agroecosystems, and the work being done by small-scale farmers to decolonize agriculture with what I propose are counter-hegemonic breeds. Using insider activist anthropology to work with a selection of farmers in Dja Dja Wurrung country, I aim to understand the values, epistemologies, and politics that lead farmers to choose rare- and heritage-breed livestock and to farm agroecologically.

Ultimately, acknowledging that small-scale farmers operate within certain norms and rules of the state, which have material impacts on their autonomous capacity to farm in ecologically-sustainable and socially-just ways (Wolf 1966; Scott 1998; van der Ploeg 2017), I aim to understand and make visible existing state and supra-state instruments and processes that currently constrain farmers’ activities, and those that can enable agroecology and rare-breed farming in Australia.

In the face of a massive global loss of agricultural biodiversity over many decades, this research can provide critical information and recommendations to slow and address losses, and to support increases in biodiversity in farming. I will engage with local smallholder and Indigenous knowledges and practices on Dja Dja Wurrung country to uncover the diverse stories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous custodians of country. The significance lies in actively working to uncover, support, and promote the biodiverse and decolonizing practices of agroecological farmers of rare- and heritage-breed livestock, to serve the urgent need to value and protect biodiversity in food and agriculture systems in the face of multiple threats from climate change and the emergence of pandemics such as COVID-19.

The project is part of and manifests the values of the social movement for food sovereignty and agroecology. In addition to my life as a farmer, I have been president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) since 2014, which is actively working across all six ‘domains of transformation’ to an agroecological future identified by Anderson et al. (2017). The domains include: access to natural ecosystems; knowledge and culture; systems of exchange; networks; equity; and discourse. This project will contribute to AFSA’s ongoing work for agroecology and food sovereignty, including to AFSA’s project Farming on Other People’s Land (FOOPL), which is developing resources to support diverse share-farming arrangements and farming cooperatives, and acknowledging that all non-Indigenous farmers are farming on other peoples’ land in Australia. This research will also contribute to the food sovereignty movement’s efforts to transform policies at all levels of government to support a transition to agroecology. It will contribute to AFSA’s new Agroecological Action Research Network (AARN), established in 2020 to network scholars and farmers across Australia to grow the body of participatory research towards an agroecological transition.

In following the deeply embedded stories, practices, soils, plants, human and nonhuman animals, and microbes on agroecological farms working to preserve rare- and heritage-breed livestock, as well as the rather more abstract yet specific stories and practices of the state, this project will assert an ontological politics – a politics of materiality and not just representation of ‘what is, what should, and what might be realised’ (Law 2018).