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. 🙂


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).