Drawing lines in the cornfield: an analysis of discourse and identity relations across agri-food networks


In this article, I analyze discourse and identity relations within so-called ‘conventional’ agri-food networks as well as how the conventional sphere perceives, constructs and responds to alternative food movements in Canada. The paper is structured around three primary research questions: (1) How are conventional actors understanding conditions, changes, and challenges within conventional networks? (2) How do conventional actors apply this understanding in advancing conventional interests and discourses, and defending conventional networks? (3) How do conventional actors and discourse construct AFMs? For this research, I draw from survey, focus group, and in-depth interview data alongside text analysis from online sources. I elucidate the interests and motivations behind the identities, stories and messages emerging from the conventional sphere. I conclude that relationship building and communication between diverse agri-food actors may help to expand the range of agricultural knowledge, philosophies and solutions available to farmers, especially those whom are currently quite divided.


The Canadian food system is at a definitive political moment: alternative food movements are gaining traction, and a national food policy is finally on the political table. This momentum comes with a carving out of political positions. Different interests and fractions of agri-food capital have coalesced, in this case, into competing camps or identities: ‘conventional’ on one hand, and ‘alternative’ on the other. Of considerable weight is the ‘cut of positioning’ of conventional agri-food interests exemplified by the industry’s ‘license to farm’ and ‘agvocacy’ communication strategies. These public relations maneuvers are directed at farmers, activists and consumers, and work to re-build the ‘social license’ of conventional agriculture while discouraging political support for non-conventional agri-food approaches.

Substantial research has been done on the nature and function of alternative food movements (AFMs),Footnote 1 as well as how neoliberal orthodoxy has shaped alternative food work, and constructed and mobilized alternative food consumers (Guthman 2008; Lockie 2009; Andrée et al. 2014; Levkoe 2014; Guthman and Brown 2015; Sbicca 2015; Dixon and Richards 2016). However, less research has focused on relations between conventional and alternative identities, and specifically, how conventional interests and identities make sense of themselves and AFMs in the context of growing AFM pressure. This paper aims to contribute to such gaps by asking three questions: (1) How are conventional actors understanding conditions, changes, and challenges within conventional networks? (2) How do conventional actors apply this understanding in advancing conventional interests and discourses, and defending conventional networks? (3) How do conventional actors and discourse construct AFMs? In answering these questions, the objective of this paper is to reveal how power, voice, and composition condition ‘conventional’ identities as they make sense of their experiences and respond to the perception of increasing momentum in alternative food movements. For clarity, the results and discussion are both broken down by these three research questions.

To move forward, this paper defines ‘conventional’ as the mode of agri-food production and identity that dominates the Canadian agricultural industry. In conventional systems, inputs are typically external to the agroecosystem, and include synthetic fertilization and chemical crop protection. Importantly, the actors and institutions providing these products and services benefit from this production system. ‘Alternative’ refers broadly to organic, biodynamic and agroecological methods of production, marked by lower-input practices, such as: promoting beneficial biological interactions; introducing organic amendments and green manure; recycling nutrients and energy within the farm; diversifying crop rotation and plant varieties; optimizing crop, forage, and livestock interactions; and rigorous water re-use and management (Altieri 1995; Gliessman 2007; Altieri and Toledo 2011; Lynch et al. 2011). Alternative also includes the farmer identities and philosophies that commonly underlie this method of agriculture.

That said, I use the terms ‘conventional’ and ‘alternative’ cautiously since the political struggle is not just between two identities (conventional vs. alternative), it is also over those identities. Admittedly, this dichotomy bundles together diverse sets of conflicting actors, interests and worldviews into distinct so-called ‘networks’. Thus, as I emphasize, a distinction must be made between networks and identities. Networks are comprised of a diverse, often conflicting, agglomeration of actors. However, it is in the interest of certain powerful actors (aligned with one ‘network’ or another) to produce a unified network identity—or at the very least, the perception of one.

To begin, I outline the development of and interaction between conventional and alternative agri-food networks and identities in Canada. From here, I use data from surveys, interviews, focus groups, and text analysis to reveal how ‘conventional’ networks make sense of their conditions, advance their interests, and construct AFMs.

Agricultural industrialization and the rise of AFMs

Over the past century, Canada’s food system has undergone a process of industrialization, underpinned by advancing mechanization and capitalization across the food chain. Agribusiness firms and farm organizations have been central actors within this process. It is well understood that corporations have siphoned off larger portions of capital within the food system, while injecting themselves more deeply into agri-food production, distribution, and retail. So, while farmers are typically producing more food on their land, this isn’t reflected in their pocketbooks. Rather, farmers are clamoring over diminishing farm-gate profits as input costs continue their upward trend. To stay afloat, farmers have expanded their land-base and standardized their production. Of course, this hasn’t worked for everyone. Over the past 30 years the number of farms in Canada has fallen by 81,503 (Statistics Canada 2011). For those who have survived, new technological promises lie on the horizon—the most prominent being precision agriculture. This system focuses on measuring ‘intra-field variability’ through yield mapping, using “smart algorithms for crops, automated equipment, working from a central control room using GPS guided autonomous drones and GPS guided equipment with precision that sometimes goes even to the level of an individual plant” (Vogt 2016). The goal is to more precisely apply inputs on land by not over-applying resources on less productive ‘zones’, or under-applying on highly productive areas. In turn, this should maximize yield productivity. Similar technologies are being developed for the livestock industry such as robotic milkers that track dairy cows’ health and welfare in real time. Coupled with advances in ‘big data’ and decision support systems (DSS), proponents tout that ‘sustainable intensification’ via precision agriculture is the best way to feed a growing population while using fewer inputs, mitigating environmental harm, and delivering higher on-farm profits (Garnett et al. 2013; Farms.com 2017).

Meanwhile, the serious social and environmental problems associated with industrial food production have propelled the rise of alternative food movements.Footnote 2 The AFM reflects a panoply of political, commercial, and philosophical origins, standpoints, and agendas, as well as different resources, priorities, and tactics. It is also connected to other broad mobilizations concerning health, natural foods, ecology, animal welfare, labor rights, biodiversity, trade, peasant rights, and anti-corporatism. Despite its diversity, the AFM is being rapidly colonized by corporate actors, marked by similar trends of corporate concentration and integration long characterizing the conventional system (Howard 2009a, b; Jaffee and Howard 2009). The ‘corporatization’ of alternative food is impacting (primarily by homogenizing) alternative food messaging and discourse—and thus, the ‘alternative’ identity itself (Howard 2009a). Specifically, AFM discourse is increasingly focused on the consumer-citizen (‘voting with your fork’), rather than transforming foodways to become more socially and environmentally just (Bryant and Goodman 2004; Lockie 2009; Guthman and Brown 2015). This consumption-driven discourse carries numerous criticisms. Most obviously, it individualizes structural social and economic problems in the food system (Alkon and Agyeman 2011). By centering attention on the consumer-as-solution, this discourse distracts from various non-consumptive work being done across the AFM.Footnote 3

Meanwhile, conventional agri-food is mobilizing its own messaging campaigns. In North America, the most popular is the ‘agvocate movement’; self-defined as a community of like-minded people who actively promote “agriculture by adding their voice to the food conversation in meaningful and respectful ways” (Agriculture More Than Ever 2017a). In Canada specifically, a key player in the movement is “Agriculture More Than Ever”, an “industry driven cause…committed to improving perceptions, dispelling myths and creating positive dialogue about Canadian ag.”(Agriculture More Than Ever 2017a). Agriculture More Than Ever is partially funded by the Canadian Government with an aim to support industry to “reach its full potential and attract the people, investment and consumer confidence needed for future success.” A second key partner is Farm Credit Canada (FCC), Canada’s primary financial lender to farmers, agri-food operations and agribusiness (a federal Crown corporation reporting to the Minister of Agriculture). Another partner is Agriculture in the Classroom, a not for profit, also partially funded by the Government, with foundational sponsorship from: Agrium, Bayer, Cargill, Dow, Syngenta and Farm Credit Canada. Finally, there is Farm & Food Care: a national charity also funded by the Canadian Government and heavily supported by Canadian Canola Growers, Alberta Canola Producers and SaskCanola along with FCC, John Deere and Dow. Farm & Food Care recently launched its Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, which is working to build “public trust and confidence in today’s food system in Canada”. Founding members include, Monsanto, A&W, Dow, FCC, John Deere, Maple Leaf, Tim Hortons, SeCan and Shur-Gain. As well, a number of companies have partnered directly with the agvocate program such as Bayer, DuPont and John Deere.

As this paper will show, ‘agvocacy’ is an attempt by aforementioned actors in conventional chains to convince other conventional actors (specifically farmers) of the nature of their reality. In this sense, unified messaging does not imply shared socio-material conditions. Rather, networks and their discourses are comprised of intertwined economies, actors and identites. Commercial capital interests often shift between ‘conventional’ and ‘alternative’, and “obscure the boundaries between the worlds of food” (Jarosz 2000; Andrée et al. 2010; O’Neill 2014, p. 114). For instance, Cargill and Tyson have both acquired organic firms and introduced organic products alongside their conventional lines. Perhaps more importantly though, network identities have their own set of political economic and cultural tensions: Network identities bundle together, “differing economic, social, technical and natural resources” within food chains (Murdoch 2000, p. 412). Despite real internal tensions, a unified ‘conventional’ identity allows actors to discursively engage the ‘alternative’ identity in a cross-network struggle for social license and consumer trust. As Sonnino and Marsden see it, this dichotomy can be represented as a “battlefield of knowledge, authority and regulation fought around different levels of embeddedness and socio-technical definitions” (2006, p. 194). The result “of this ongoing battle is to empower or disempower particular sets of supply chain actors” (Sonnino and Marsden 2006, p. 194). The critical player here is the farmer: agri-business desperately wants farmers on their side, since farmers are relatively well trusted by the public, while consumer trust in agri-business leaves much to be desired.

Identity refers to self and social image (‘identification’; Hall and Du Gay 1996), including customs and beliefs as well as cultural, physical and discursive markers and expressions, all of which interact (although not at all neatly) with one’s gender, class, and racial location. Identity is crucial to building solidarity—despite socio-material tensions—and defining a group or network against others. Identity also influences whether and to what degree actors experience affinity with a given social, cultural, or agri-cultural ‘network’ (Lockie 2006), while powerful actors mobilize identity to encourage affiliation. In what follows, I use qualitative data to explore ‘conventional’ identity, specifically, how conventional actors understand the ‘conventional’ networks with which they identify, how this understanding is mobilized by conventional actors and discourse, and how conventional networks see and make sense of so-called ‘alternative’ movements and actors. First, I analyze the multiple origins and competing constructions of the conventional identity, as well as the variety of lived conditions and experiences of conventionally identified farmers. Second, I show that ‘conventional’ actors and discourse often justify and make sense of these conditions by shifting blame onto external sources. Third, I show how conventional discourse uses identity to exploit cultural and social differences between networks, subsequently undermining AFM voice and complexity.

Context and methods

This research is situated in ON, Canada. Ontario was selected as the study site because it is home to the largest number of farms in Canada, has a large population of conventional grain farmers [approx. 28,000 (Statistics Canada 2011)], and is an important site of input-intensive field crop and livestock production. Ontario’s proximity to U.S. markets and trade specifically encourage export-oriented agri-food production systems. In turn, Ontario has developed an integrated industrial agri-food system. Meanwhile, Ontario’s rising urban population is contributing to growing interest and action around food and farming issues province-wide. In fact, through the work of provincial organizations like Sustain Ontario, there is now an expanding and diverse network of alternative food and farming related initiatives (Levkoe et al. 2012).

It is important to clarify that when referring to conventional actors, I refer principally to self-ascribed conventional farmers who were interviewed for this research. Their opinions and processes of meaning making were accessed primarily through surveys and in-depth interviews. I also investigate the broader discursive positioning of conventional agriculture as an industry. To access this discourse, I perform a content analysis of the online ‘agvocate’ campaign and community. The distinction between farmer and agvocate is muddy and overlapping (i.e. some farmers are agvocates, some agvocates are farmers, but not all farmers are agvocates). While it is important to make this analytic distinction at the outset, both are intricately linked, and are therefore required for a full understanding of conventional farming conditions, challenges, identities and discourses. Finally, focus groups were necessary in accessing collective perceptions of the relations between alternative and conventional networks.

Data collection for this research occurred in multiple phases. The first phase occurred between January and April 2015, wherein 107 surveys were conducted with grain farmers across Ontario.Footnote 4 During this time, selective farmer outreach was done by attending farm shows, agricultural conferences, annual general meetings, and connecting with farmer organizations and staff. To develop a deeper understanding of conventional identities, language, and cultures, I attended various workshops and presentations held during conferences and general meetings, and recorded detailed notes. Once the target survey sample size was reached (100), data analysis began. Using the survey data, 40 respondents were selected for in-depth interviews. Selection was based on their responses to the following survey components: acreage, income and income change, yields, crop rotation, cover crop/forage integration, livestock, local production, community acceptance of newcomers, on-farm diversification, and interest in ecological enhancement and land sharing programming. Specifically, I aimed for a diversity of farm practices and characteristics. I selected for those who ranged in farm size (ensuring that I had a fairly equal population of small and large farmers), agroecological practices, livestock integration, and crop rotation. 24 of the 40 respondents were able to participate in the interviews (1–3 h each), which were conducted between June and August 2015. From here, three interviews were completed with policy experts from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and a non-profit agricultural organization. Subsequently, three focus groups were conducted during the fall of 2016 with a total of 15 agri-food actors, consisting of activists, community organizers, academics, students and OMAFRA affiliated staff (co-op and contract). Participants were selected through snowball sampling (primarily through direct emails as well as outreach during the 2016 Food Secure Canada conference). The purpose of the focus groups was to explore how AFM actors collectively perceive conventional discourses and reactions to social movement pressure, as well as what linkages, interests, and connections they have observed between conventional and alternative networks. During the focus groups I used seven core questions to probe participants about: their work and perceived role and position within alternative food movements; how they feel alternative food movements are perceived by conventional farm communities; how they perceive the role of food movements with respect to agribusiness and conventional farmers; their perceived connection (or lack thereof) to conventional farm communities; possible aspects of their social position that may influence their interest and/or ability to connect with conventional farm networks and communities; the perceived role of gender in producing/maintaining social dynamics within and between networks. Interview and focus group data was audio-recorded, transcribed and analyzed. The data was coded into 27 parent codes (with 12 sub-codes). The analysis proceeded relationally between trends in the data and the research objectives. Focus group data was combined into the existing interview codes, while also separated into additional codes where necessary. The analysis was coded with Flick’s (2009) questions in mind. I was especially interested in who was involved, how often the issue was emphasized, and what reasons were provided or constructed (Flick 2009; Liamputtong 2012). Additionally, I performed a content analysis of conventional messaging online. I focused attention on the discursive spaces that self-identify with the ‘agvocate’ campaign (websites, blogs, webinars, Twitter feeds, etc.). The results that follow are broken down by the three aforementioned research questions.


Question 1: conventional conditions

Farmer survey and interview respondents recognized and confirmed rising class differentiation and structural inequities across the conventional farm population. This trend toward fewer, larger, more heavily capitalized farms in Canada affects small-scale, alternative, and aspiring producers acutely. However, conventional farmers are recognizing and experiencing this pressure also. Small and medium sized conventional farmers specifically experience increased economic stress alongside declining income over time (Rotz et al. 2017). Meanwhile, yields-per-acre across farm scale are not significantly different, illustrating that income differentials are often not a product of greater efficiency on the part of larger farmers.

Nevertheless, small farmers are struggling to remain financially and socially viable in conventional agriculture. As one farmer explains, “we can’t afford to keep buying bigger and bigger equipment, the bigger the equipment the more sophisticated it is…When the big farmers are getting new, that’s when we buy their used stuff. We just can’t afford it.” They go on to explain why they feel alienated by the industry, “I think we’re too small…I think they [both government and corporations] deal too much with the big guys, there is nothing for us small guys.” His wife elaborates,

He will go to a combine clinic and he would say “oh my god, I wasted that session, because it was a combine that was the newest combine going”, he said “it is almost depressing, you can’t ever even hope to have something like that”. And anybody that buys a $500,000 combine, you know damn well the dealers are going to all be on his doorstep every morning helping him get that combine going, whereas me, with that 15 or 20-year-old combine, there’s nothing out there for us. You’re almost wasting your time…they like the guy with 5000 acres, they will bend over backwards for him. (84)Footnote 5

Over 80% of farmers interviewed express serious doubts about their ability to reproduce their farm enterprise and do not think their farm will last into the next generation—or even the next 15 years in some cases. In addition to the cost of land and labour, nearly all farmer interviewees point to the effect of rising input costs (tools, seeds, fertilizer, and machinery) on their production and farm viability. 85% of survey respondents report that their input costs have risen ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’ over the past 10 years (44 and 40% respectively). Survey respondents rank seeds (67%), fertilizer (82%), and pesticides (51%) as their three largest financial costs (of 16 choices).

The data show that access to knowledge and resources are also being differentiated by farm scale. For instance, farmers who primarily receive their agricultural information from a private consultant have an average acreage of 1021, while the average acreage of those who do not is 559. Conversely, those who primarily receive information from other farmers manage 620 acres on average, while the average acreage of those who do not is 873. Farmer and expert interviews confirm this trend. As an expert interviewee observes, large conventional farmers avoid sharing information in order to maintain a competitive edge. The interviewee explains that large farmers are also less willing to participate in government programs or workshops. Instead, they invest in information technology, which typically entails companies partnering to optimize machinery and collect and interpret big data. Generally, large farmers are found to be far more interested in private funding mechanisms and amassing technocratic forms of knowledge than they are, for instance, in accessing public grants or resources. Hence, the data show that there is not only a growing disjunct between the economic capital of different sized farmers, but social and cultural (knowledge) capital also.Footnote 6

Question 2: conventional networks and the blame game

This section reveals how conventional farmers engage with two pressing questions: ‘why is this happening?’ and ‘what are we going to do about it?’ Specifically, it explores the stories farmers tell about who/what is responsible for the challenges they face. While farmers were not always in unanimous agreement concerning the exact sources of their economic hardship, they seemed to agree that the government and/or consumers played a role. On one hand, the regulatory force of a corrupt and lumbering government bureaucracy is felt to smother farmer innovation, syphon off profit, and limit growth. On the other hand, farmers feel that the fickle habits of consumers combined with consumer ‘misinformation’ make it difficult to identify or respond to market demands. Despite this assertion, farmers also feel that very little communication or understanding exists between themselves and consumers (not to mention alternative food activists). This communicative distance is the space in which farmers create and project their own narratives, and, once filled with these narratives, it becomes difficult for farmers to empathize with consumers and the challenges of food related decision-making within the industrial food system.

Online content analysis confirms these narratives, but also reveals the discursive strategies deployed in response. The following are some of the most common phrases that emerged: farmers need to ‘agvocate’ and ‘speak up for agriculture’, modern agriculture needs to ‘build trust’, and farmers are the ‘credible voice’ for the industry. Broadly, the most consistent messaging of the agvocacy discourse encourages farmers to stand together with each other and industry in the face of burdensome government and capricious consumers. The ultimate goal of this call to action is to defend modern agricultural methods and preserve the ‘social license’ of conventional agriculture.

In addition to government and consumers, climate change was identified across the data as another significant source of farmer hardship. When asked about climate change, 18 of 24 farmers noted weather to be more extreme, and a common concern was how to manage such volatility. The following farmer expressed a commonly held sentiment, “farmers are talking about it. The extremes are more extreme and more difficult to time things in a reasonable way. It seems like you got hours and half-days instead of days to do things.” In turn, he says, “I’ve got to have good equipment now, because when I go, I got to go. I can’t be fixin’ (29) Another large farmer responds similarly to climate change and the shrinking window for field work: “I think we have adapted in that we have larger more efficient machinery so that when those windows are there for getting field work done we can work very quickly, far more quickly than we could have 5 or 10 years ago. I think that will be even more important going forward: efficiency” (54).

The content analysis reveals a similar narrative concerning climate change. Specifically, climate change is presented as a threat or problem to be ‘managed’ through precision agriculture, ‘smart farming’ and big data (Practical Pathways to Drive Real Results 2015). This was observed most commonly on industry websites, in industry news articles and during participant observation of industry presentations and workshops (e.g. Monsanto, Bayer and DuPont).

Question 3: constructing alternative food others

The third question investigates the processes through which alternative food identities, actors and networks are constructed (and then treated) in the conventional sphere. Specifically, the data reveal the importance of space and gender during these processes of construction. During farmer interviews, some respondents associated gender with a particular set of characteristics. Connections are commonly made between femininity, non-farm/urban identity, and left political views. As one farmer states,

In a grade twelve World Issues class, three quarters of the participants will be female, and most of those, and maybe you’re one of them, are ultra-socialist. I’m not being derogatory here, way over strong, strong NDP. Take care of the fellow people, local food only, anti-pesticide. And they say, ‘Mr. Smith you grow GMO crops!’ [I say] ‘yeah’, and they want to know why and all this. And I can spend time talking about it, but it’s the usual female […] polite kids, but mostly the gals. So, that trend, I said urban earlier, it’s not just urban, I’m in the science office and one of the gals is a science teacher and she is totally anti-GMO. (37) (author’s emphasis)

During the focus groups, it became clear that these constructions are neither subtle nor hidden. Instead, these constructions are painfully evident to those who are characterized as part of the ‘feminine urban left’ when attempting to engage with the conventional network. In other words, these, often pejorative constructions are felt most strongly by those to whom they are made to apply: primarily young females from non-farming backgrounds. Indeed, this experience bares out in my own interaction with farmers. A female respondent speaks to the assumptions made about her identity when reflecting on her experience with farmers:

I’m not sure if it is because I am a young woman or because I have these political opinions. When working with farmers I was often asked if I was a vegetarian before anything else came up in conversation […] they were very mistrustful of vegetarians, and I guess I look like they imagine a vegetarian looks like. I also am not from a farming background and so I think both because of that and because I am a young woman I often felt like people were treating me like their daughter, like they were kind of protecting me or guiding me along on the farm. Babying me […] It was like, ‘is this your first time on a farm?’ (author’s emphasis)

Content analysis of the agvocacy sphere confirmed the ubiquity of these affiliations. Figure 1 depicts a common set of qualities placed upon those who are critical of modern agriculture. The most prevalent affiliations that emerged from the content analysis were between urban/non-farming people, higher wealth (and purchasing power), lack of information and understanding of agriculture and ‘science’, distrust of agriculture, and vegetarian, natural, and organic food preferences. Specifically, ‘modern agriculture critics’ were often presented as non-rural (suburban, urban), female consumers (Food Babe being an emblematic scapegoat), and mothers in particular (Bowman 2014; SaskCanola 2016).

Fig. 1

Webinar slide depicting Canadian consumers and their knowledge of food and agriculture (Daynard 2015)

Moreover, numerous gendered connotations were made less directly. We know that women are often coded as closer to nature (Ortner 1974), thus preferring ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ products (Ruby and Heine 2011; Caplan 2013). We also know that women are coded more broadly with counterdemocratic tendencies: irrational, passionate, excitable, and unrealistic (Alexander 1992). Content analysis and farmer interviews revealed that ‘organic’, with its feminine connotations, is also coded as counterdemocratic. For instance, in reference to organic production, the following codes were most common: organic as inefficient, backwards, unscientific (‘anti-science’), untested, unrealistic, misinformed, irrational, and deceitful—codes which were also attributed strongly to female ‘critics’ and consumers. Illustrative quotes include, “To me it is like stepping backwards […] Agriculture has a job to do. The world does not know how to stop having babies: 9 billion by 2050” (26), “What are the odds of it being organic? They don’t test.” (28), “It’s [organic] a crock of shit! Most organic farmers are poor farmers because they don’t control their weeds and their crops aren’t as good as they should be. They’re in it for money, and they’re getting a lot more than they should be. Because their harvesting crap, there is some crap, and I wouldn’t eat their crap if they gave it to me.” (29) “I don’t see organic farming as a viable way of going […] the organic industry has a credibility problem, they may have all of their paperwork in place, but does the paperwork really mean much? I don’t think so.” (30), “The founder of the organic movement […] a lot of the things he is quoted saying are just completely irrelevant […] I thought [he] was a crackpot” (4) “That market [organic] is largely driven by misinformation” (54).

Finally, conventional actors and discourses consistently conflated alternative food actors and movements with urban consumers. Few farmers were aware of the alternative food movements’ complexity. The alternative food movement is concerned with ‘food justice’ and ‘food sovereignty’. It is engaged in activities to get diverse new/aspiring farmers onto land. It includes entities such as food co-ops and community food centres and organizations like Black Creek Community Farm, Everdale, Ontario Farmland Trust, FarmStart, Sustain Ontario, Food Secure Canada, and Just Food Ottawa, among many others. Nearly all farmers, however, were unaware of this work. Instead, conventional actors and discourses refer almost exclusively to urban food consumers/consumer activists.


The discussion expands on the above data to examine how conventional interests are responding to alternative food movement discourse, and for what possible ends. The following three sections address each research question in turn. The first section shows how conventional interests conceal internal differentiation. The second section shows how conventional interests externalize systemic problems, and the third section examines how conventional interests construct food movements in particular ways; specifically by exploiting enduring beliefs, which in turn, restricts, undermines and ignores the voices of non-consumptive identities.

Question 1: concealing differentiation

Social license. That is exactly what it was about […] how we need to fight this movement because they are undermining our ability to feed the world because they don’t understand the science […] they [conventional networks] have started using this language around social license and the fact that the food movement is threatening them. I actually think recently, in the last two years, that there has become this very antagonistic us vs. them language in conventional farming. (AFM affiliated respondent)

Content analysis of agvocate messaging shows that the goal of the conventional sphere is to re-build the ‘social license’ of conventional agriculture. Farmers are being trained through webinars, workshops and presentations to deploy well-crafted agvocate messaging against consumers directly. In much of the content, farmers are presented as selfless, caring, land stewards who ‘know best’. As the experts, farmers are placed into the role of defending their practices and decisions. Farmers are directed to ‘work together’ with industry and ‘speak for the industry’ to reach consumers and “help consumers draw a closer connection to where their food comes from and the people who produce it” (Agriculture More Than Ever 2017b). Farmers become the spokespeople for ‘modern agriculture’ who then must share the ‘truth’ about agriculture, dispel misconceptions and change perceptions (Agriculture More Than Ever 2017a). In this sense, a common identity is generated by building a unified defense of production across the farm-base.

To do so, network messaging conceals significant internal tensions observed in the data. In the context of ongoing economic differentiation, farmers consistently expressed a feeling of helplessness. However, this helplessness exists alongside a deep-rooted sense of social, cultural, and economic affiliation, resulting in a state of dissonance. Effectively, the promotion of a unified defense of conventional production doesn’t sit neatly with the lived experiences of many farmers—small and medium sized farmers specifically. Indeed, economic differentiation has fed off of the incentivization of consolidation and capitalization, driven by many of the same firms involved in the agvocacy movement.

The data also show rising social/cultural differentiation, which is—at least partially—rooted in a growing aversion to knowledge sharing between different sized farmers. Concurrently, there is a rise in knowledge sharing between large farmers and private suppliers and consultants, which has been articulated elsewhere (Morgan and Murdoch 2000; Carolan 2005). As the interview data show, OMAFRA has seen similar trends toward knowledge fragmentation between farmers. These findings demonstrate the disparate kinds of relationships being encouraged and built between farmers and agribusiness in practice. Small and medium sized farmers are experiencing significant economic grief, and have little social capital to leverage. However, conventional discourse and messaging remains silent about these issues. Indeed, rising input costs and farm scale differentiation are not at all present in the messaging.

Economic differentiation is discursively concealed in the Ministry as well. Interviewees working within the Ministry felt as though it often overlooked, or actively ignored the issue of farm scale differentiation. Interviewees reflected on how OMAFRA views and promotes agriculture as ‘idyllic’ ‘family farms’. One respondent explained that all sized farms were treated as small family farms, “just raising their vegetables and sending them off to the market…But a lot of the growers had very large operations with very sophisticated equipment. We actually went to some greenhouses, which are huge, massive places, run basically without any agricultural knowledge. It is just business inputs…but there was never any talk about whether that was good or bad. They were just like, ‘this is great because they are small family living’”. In effect, silence works to conceal the presence and importance of farm scale differentiation, while concurrently building social identity through the use of unifying moral representations as independent, proud, family-oriented, resourceful, stewards and protectors of the land (Agriculture More Than Ever 2017c).

Subsequently, this network (and the identity it constructs) discourages reflection into political economic forces—and how they have, and continue to impact farmers and rural communities. What is made clear is a commitment to a fairly singular future, rather than a focus on cultivating new possibilities based on multiple futures. This is evidenced by interactions between actors. For instance, one respondent engaged in alternative networks describes attending a conventional industry presentation focused on why ‘farmers need to wage war on urban people’, an observation echoed by many engaged in AFMs (and observed first-hand). Indeed, for some conventional interests, the solution has already been realized through corporate-led forms of precision agriculture, it merely needs to be liberated from the shackles of corporate distrust (Vogt 2016). Carolan’s findings bare out here in that such strategies coerce “actors into certain forms of ‘communication’”, wherein “the data in these assemblages seem to do the speaking for themselves” while “those impacted by ‘it’ have little (if anything) to say about what and whom they should be or become.” (2016, p. 12) This strategy has little to do with bringing together politically, economically and socially disparate voices to listen and collectively envision multiple possible agricultural futures, but rather, to direct a solution (and its most lucrative components) and foster trust therein. In turn, not only are there no meaningful spaces for alternative visions and multiple futures to be conceived, but there is no space to reflect on the longstanding social and economic consequences of this trajectory for farmers themselves.

Question 2: naming the problem

According to agvocates (and numerous interviewees), modern agriculture is changing for the good and is essential to feeding “9 billion by 2050”. The problem, they say, is that the benefits of modern agriculture are not well understood by critics. Their ultimate food solution then, is simply to educate “those that have a misunderstanding of agriculture” (Vogt 2016).

Interestingly, while the network claims to be strong and unified, it must nevertheless acknowledge that farmers are facing unprecedented challenges. In effect, the network acknowledges that the industry is struggling, but they attribute the problem to external forces, which all farmers are encouraged to rally against. Namely, the network motivates farmers to correct problematic trends in consumer food purchasing. This is the primary function of Farm & Food Care and the agvocate network: to train farmers to become ‘confidant agricultural communicators’. That is, they offer agricultural advocacy training to build farmer confidence in speaking to consumers (Daynard 2015). The ultimate goal is to change consumer perspectives, interests, and activities. Yet, as Communications Manager for Farm & Food Care, Kelly Daynard says, it is “hard to find farmers that are confident and eager to speak on behalf of agriculture” given the “economic issues” they have faced over the past 20 years or so. Importantly however, network discourse overlooks corporate concentration and industrialization as possible reasons why farmers are reluctant to ‘speak up’ for a system that has left so many behind.

Indeed, farmers do have a keen sense of industrializations’ force in modern agriculture. Many acknowledge they operate at the whims of an international market wherein processors, distributors and retailers siphon off the vast majority of profits. As a farmer noted, “we’re not here because we want to be here, it’s just the way that the world has pushed us to go, we’re like everybody else. Even a carmaker, if they can’t do it efficiently, they come and go, we’ve been pushed the same way” (28). Yet, the findings illustrate that farmer and network discourse consistently shift the blame onto consumers and their desire for cheap food. Similarly, in response to perceived public backlash against pesticide-treated seeds, farmer interviewees and network messaging targeted governments and disgruntled consumers rather than the companies who produced and marketed those seeds [consistent with the findings of Bain et al. (2017)]. Accordingly, antagonism has deepened between farmers and consumers—not surprisingly, the two least powerful actors in the chain.

As the results show, climate change is emerging as a prominent threat for farmers. Conventional interests present organic as the ‘unproductive’ agriculture of ‘yesteryear’ (SaskCanola 2016), and argue that only ‘smart farming’, can simultaneously “feed the world, tackle climate change and protect nature.” (Crop Life International 2017). Agvocates then, do not deny climate change but rather, present it as a threat or problem that can only be ‘managed’ with science, innovation, big data and precision agriculture (Practical Pathways to Drive Real Results 2015).

The threat of climate change is thus being used across the network to advance new modes of on-farm mechanization, specifically big data collection (mining), analysis, and re-sale. As a Monsanto representative explains, the only way to know your soil and your farm’s vulnerability to climate change is through data, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” (Wright 2015). In turn, farmers are entrusting intricate on-farm soil, weather, input, yield and profit data to agricultural data development firms like Monsanto’s Climate Corp. in exchange for personalized farm action-plans (Carbonell 2016). Firms such as Monsanto, Tyson, and John Deere however, prevent farmers from owning, accessing or modifying on-farm software and data, while at the same time, sharing and manipulating that data for profit (Carbonell 2016; Janzen 2017). Further, many big data programs operate like a treadmill. Once farmers are invested in the new set of data-driven technologies, they quickly become dependent when they discover that the data output can only be accessed through progressive pay-walls (Carolan 2016). The underlying logic of this trajectory is that, in order to have scientific innovation in agriculture, farmers (and other users) must relinquish ownership to the private realm, while also conceding to the scientific (research and development) interests of corporate innovators. In effect, ‘science’ has come to stand in for changing modes of mechanization (e.g. big data, GPS monitoring and remote sensing) that work to intensify capital, exacerbate scale economies, and “contribute to the concentration of agricultural production in fewer hands” (Wolf and Buttel 1996, p. 1270).Footnote 7 In other words, farmers are conflating the mechanization and privatization of on-farm information and data with the advancement of science more broadly.

What qualifies as ‘science’ is central to the struggle between conventional and alternative networks. As one farmer noted, “everyone is trying to claim science on their side.” (73) For instance, in response to the recent neonicitinoid pesticide regulation, many farmers argued strongly against the regulation on the grounds that “there was no science behind it” (29). Such views were expressed regarding the direction of agricultural policy more broadly, “we have seen the government alter policy based on the voice of the urban population, so that is affecting all farmers, and a lot of it isn’t based on good science, and I think that is a problem.” (54) This statement illustrates how urban governance, expansion, and consumption are interpreted as external threats to modern agriculture, and rendered antithetical to science, the moral life of rural farming, and farmer solidarity.

Question 3: constructing alternative identities

Conventional interests and identities are assembling a particular representation of alternative food movements, and those who are critical of conventional agriculture more generally. Figure 1 presents a snapshot of common themes for constructing critics of agriculture. Or rather, the features with which critics are associated. Below, I focus on a number of intersecting themes observed, and show how they are used to undermine the rationality, knowledge, and experiences of alternative food actors and identities.

Gendered and spatial constructions

Gender and space work to shape broader cultural class distinctions for the rural, conventional network (Leach 2011). It is not ‘feminine’ or urban symbolic/material representation alone that is operating, but rather their intersecting political force, which stands in as an archetypal cultural and material threat to the conventional network and their way of life. Gender and space are both reproductive in their effects, in that it is only because of their particular socio-history and relation to material and discursive power within conventional agriculture that they are able to stand in for such a threat to begin with (see how masculinities, on the other hand, are represented and manipulated; Bell et al. 2015). The data reveal a common construction of the feminine-urbanite-consumer as the archetypal alternative food activist and critic of modern agriculture, which juxtapose strongly against rural agrarian masculinities (Liepins 2000; Connell 2001; Pini 2004; Coldwell 2007; Bye 2009; Bell et al. 2015). Space and gender play a crucial, intersecting role to produce an archetypal cultural class distinction between those who ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ conventional agriculture.Footnote 8 A female focus group respondent revealed this intersection when reflecting on her employment experience with OMAFRA,

I think that this urban thing was a huge part of my summer, and trying to fight to be listened to because I was from an urban place. As I reflect on the summer and why I so often had to defend myself. I think it is because I am a young woman and also because I am from the city and also because my background is in the environment, and those three things tie into the conventional agricultural discussion because my background makes me wary of conventional agriculture.

The conflation of young, non-rural, feminine identity with vegetarian, natural and organic consumption often accompanied arguments that critics might mean well and merely ‘want the best for their family’ but simply ‘don’t know any better’ and are ‘misinformed about agriculture’. These constructions uphold the legitimacy of conventional farming identities by coding critics as unrealistic, naïve, irrational and overcome by passion (Alexander 1992). Indeed, these master codes can be applied to many ‘Other’ existing social identities that threaten the security and material comfort of the ‘Self’. In this case, the identity ‘young urban woman’ is codified in the white male farmer imaginary according to counterdemocratic motives. This observation is echoed in the quote where farmer 37 uses my identity presentation alone to assume I am one of the “ultra-socialists” he speaks of (see Question 3 in results). Put simply, this is not only a battle of worldviews, but a battle of identity.

This is not to imply that farmers and other conventional actors express and share such archetypes explicitly (i.e. that all farmers engage in overtly sexist commentary). It isn’t (necessarily) the case that farmer X is saying to farmer Y, “hey, can you believe those urban woman these days?” Rather, as their social, cultural, and economic capital is increasingly threatened, they (like nearly all other affiliated groups in society) apply these counterdemocratic codes to the identities they perceive as being the source of that threat. Beyond farmers’ security and material comfort, I argue that their identity as the archetypal rugged individualist is also under threat—not only by ‘critics’ but industrial actors as well (Bell et al. 2015). A central argument for critics is that the most successful farmers are instead cooperating with and benefitting from agri-food industrialization and corporatization. According to critics then, the rugged frontiersman is a historical myth. Farmers respond by then doubling down on the identity of rugged individualism—and increasingly ‘business entrepreneur’—and placing that identity in opposition to the aforementioned counterdemocratic codes. These binary codes are thus a discursive tool which are equally effective for conventional industry interests, as they coopt and manipulate the farmer identity, and present it as their own.

While this observation may not be new, its implications may prove far-reaching. Such constructions have material impacts. They are reproduced throughout the agricultural network and endured by many young women working within it. Young female focus group participants concurred that their interactions with farmers were often mired in condescension and scrutiny, but they focused more so on the complex ways in which identity impacted their professional work in the industry. One female focus group member expressed that, with colleagues, “sometimes it felt like being bullied, because of my opinions”. When asked to expand, she explained that “they were not really that happy” if she asked a question. “They kind of thought it was dumb and they made that pretty clear. Sometimes I saw things on livestock farms that I didn’t know happened or I was uncomfortable with, and if I asked a question about that then I was ‘animal rights, animal welfare’.” In turn, “I was pretty quickly shutdown and told to keep my emotions in check.” As if they were asking, “why are you applying emotions to this topic of business?” Certainly, it does not matter whether coded ‘emotionality’ (excitable, hysterical, irrational, passionate; Alexander 1992) is ever truly embodied by the female speaker. Rather, her gender always already marks any and all expression as inherently emotional. Furthermore, it is because women have so long been excluded from these spaces that entering them is perceived to be threatening.

When considering knowledge and identity, the role of place becomes increasingly important. Focus group respondents agreed that since they were not from a farm, they did not feel qualified to make suggestions. An OMAFRA respondent reflects on how those in the industry “hold their farm knowledge so special, it’s the best knowledge and I didn’t have that. Even among other students like me.” Many of these students did not feel that she could possibly understand cows because she didn’t grow up on a farm. Notably, she felt that this lack of appreciation was augmented by her environmental studies background, which associated her, in their minds, with a distrust of agriculture.

Linking identity to spatiality directly, ‘farm cred’ was noted to be of particular importance: “I always feel like, if I’m entering into a conventional space, I have to say ‘I grew up dairy farming’. To get farm cred.” This was not only true when connecting with farmers directly, but when interacting with colleagues in government and farm organizations as well, “I would constantly be asked, where are you from? Where is your farm?” Her (male) boss, who “particularly fought for people to appreciate my knowledge despite not being from a farm”, would say ‘yeah she knows a lot about this kind of stuff. You should ask her about that’ and I really appreciated that. “Maybe I should have fought for that myself. Maybe that’s something kind of profound. Maybe they didn’t believe me, and they needed him to say it.” Her non-farm identity connected with her gender in ways that made it very difficult to interact equally with colleagues, to ask questions and have a voice throughout the project. In this way, an identity of place is at work, which is meant to keep non-farm identities out of place. One cannot gain acceptance, access, and legitimacy through knowledge alone—they must have experienced and express a specific identity of place.

Urbanity played a particular role in how conventional network interests were upheld. For instance, OMAFRA affiliated participants agreed that urban populations and interests were particularly disparaged in the conventional network, which links directly to hierarchies of knowledge: “I find a lot, in policy discussions, it’ll be like ‘the folks from Toronto think you shouldn’t do anything. They’re completely unrealistic and idealistic and they don’t appreciate where our food comes from.’” The sense was thus that many in the conventional network performed an attitude that, as the same respondent phrased it, “there are some sensitive people out there and they have never stepped foot on a farm and they are letting their emotions run the show”, an attitude that pervades the institutional culture. In this way, urbanity takes on feminine coding, thus standing in for the identity itself.

This sentiment shaped many of the opinions of farmers directly. For instance, when asked their opinions on the recent neonicitinoid pesticide regulations following growing evidence of pollinator toxicity, farmers overwhelmingly felt that the regulation was a “political response” to “urban special interest groups” and “that crazy broad [Premier Kathleen Wynne] trying to leave a green legacy” (26). While some farmers were critical of the industry’s over promotion and use of the pesticide, the blame and opposition consistently fell onto urban populations who ‘have misinformation’ and ‘don’t know anything about agriculture’ or ‘science’ for that matter. Interestingly, this line of reasoning was often employed to argue that the regulation was blaming farmers (as opposed to production of the product, and the availability of alternatives), and was unworkable because the only alternative within the conventional system was to revert to older, ‘less safe’ pesticides.

Accordingly—and over time—articulations get drawn along magnetic “lines of tendential force”, which are the tendencies that go along in the constructions of social or cultural formations (Grossberg 1986, p. 53). Put differently, social and cultural formations (such as conventional agriculture) are historically embedded and bound up within ideologies that reflect particular social, economic and cultural structures, thus making the formation itself difficult to disrupt (Grossberg 1986). Interrupting these tendential connections entails “moving against the grain of historical formations”, thus “you are going to come across all the grooves that have articulated it already” (Grossberg 1986, p. 54). It is not to say that more recent conventional discourse (such as the agvocate campaign) is producing the aforementioned cultural constructions and symbols, but rather that the discourse is piggybacking off of them. Specifically, by applying a set of master codes to ‘feminine’, non-farming identities (as these identities are seen as the source of their threat), conventional identities get validated. This is not immaterial, however. By constructing critics in this way, conventional networks maintain longstanding gendered and spatialized relations of power. Indeed, they are only able to do so because of the deeply historical and relational force of both gender and space.

Leaving out the land: constructing a consumer movement

A lot of farmers have this picture of these really wealthy urbanites willing to spend crazy amounts of money on organic food. (73)

Farmer and industry discourse alike was strongly consumer-centric, which works to both discredit and homogenize AFMs. AFMs were consistently presented as “urban consumers who may not know what an acre is” and “have little agricultural language” (Nagel 2016): summoning aforementioned codes of unrealistic naivety. Most farmers understood AFMs simply as consumer advocacy for local and organic food (‘vote with your fork’ sort of discourse), which isn’t surprising given how alternative food consumers are mobilized and constructed in neoliberal times (Lockie 2009). Meanwhile, there was a broad consensus across farming, industry and alternative actors that communication and understanding was very poor between conventional and alternative networks. As someone engaged in alternative networks explained, “when I talk about a food movement, farmers make an assumption that that food movement is a bunch of urban wealthy people going to farmers’ markets. That is part of the movement, but by no means is that the [entire] movement.”

For conventional interests, consumer-centrism deflects from deeper, structural questions including, who is able to access rural lands and spaces in the first place, and what factors determine land access and restriction. Such questions point to trends of consolidation facilitated by the increasing immersion of capitalism in agriculture premised on settler colonial settlement, which has—and continues to—allocate the ownership and control of arable land to white settlers. In turn, there is no meaningful consideration of the political, economic, and cultural barriers to land access in Canada for those from a non-agricultural background. Farmer and industry discourse alike doesn’t acknowledge the political economic and social forces behind peoples’ separation from agriculture. Rather, their separation is simply used to argue that they do not know farming, therefore, we must defend the people who do: those already on the land (Bufkin 2015). As a result, there is no mention of how to broaden and diversify access to agriculture, rather, the focus remains on defending the system as it is: one that must continue to expand to survive, because fewer people are inevitably going to be on the land. The ways forward are thus centered on growth and the accumulation of technology, capital, data, and, of course, land.

Alternative as ‘anti-science’

A final trend observed is the way in which critics are constructed as ‘anti-science’—directly linked to aforementioned claims over science. Consumers, whom are now akin to ‘alternative food activists’ or ‘modern agriculture critics’, are placed in opposition to science. As a farmer argues, “nowadays people are even questioning science […] they don’t seem to want science involved in their food production. And what they don’t understand is it always has been. From the first hybridization of corn, for instance, that is genetic modification” (26). Another farmer argues against those in favour of recent neonicitinoid pesticide regulations by saying, “as a society, science has benefited us far more than it hasn’t […] to all of the sudden go from science-based conclusions, to go the other way, is, in my opinion, a big step in the wrong direction” (54). These constructions then get utilized to argue that such forces are eroding farmer autonomy. As an agvocate blogger writes, “with every added regulation or policy that gets put into place based on consumer concerns as opposed to scientific concerns, it’s not necessarily going to be the farmers choice on how they operate.” (Lyndsey Smith 2016) (author’s emphasis).

Concurrently, conventional interests are recruiting scientifically ‘trustworthy’ figures (such as dieticians and nutritionists) to build trust with consumers. As an alternative affiliated participant notes, their strategy is to say, ‘hey dietitians, you’re thought leaders, people trust you to know about nutrition and because you’re a qualified scientist […] let us talk to you about the science of what we’re doing.’ It is a very subtle thing’, which serves to “endorse what farmers are doing”, as another participant notes. They explain that, in effect, the public can say, “look, I trust dietitians, I trust scientists […] So these dreaded, barefoot people running around screaming must be full of shit.”

By constructing critics as wholly anti-science, critics become hypocrites in that they are understood to embrace technology and innovation in their own lives, but reject its application in agriculture: thus effectively mobilizing the code of irrationality. “A lot of people want their lives to change, but they don’t want farmers’ lives to change. A lot of people would be really insulted if you told them they have to put away their iPhone, but their idea is that farmers will continue to use the technology that was around when the phone was a crank phone” (Dale Leftwich, License to Farm 2016). The assumption here is that critics reject technology outright. However, many in the alternative movement explain that they are not anti-technology nor anti-science (Bronson and Knezevic 2016; Carolan 2016). Rather, their critiques are directed at how science and technology is advanced, applied, and held. The central concern is interest and effect: who produces and owns it, and for what possible ends. When embedded within proprietary assemblages, technology can “evoke feelings of being in ‘a straightjacket’” (Carolan 2016, 17). This is especially so for less powerful actors in the system, primarily farmers.

Interview, focus group and content analysis confirm a common tactic of conflating science with experience. Science is central to defending conventional methods (neonicitinoid use and no-till especially) by concluding that critics are simply without science, and therefore, out of touch with experiences of farmers. The most common argument was that nearly all Canadians are at least two generations removed from agriculture, and thus, do not understand the lived experiences of farmers. This was followed by the argument that consumers do not have access to accurate scientific evidence upon which to form an opinion. In other words, they are ‘misinformed’. As a self-identified “city girl” who married a farmer confesses in License to Farm (2016), “I have had questions about the safety of chemicals”, and after learning “what farming is all about”, she found that a lot of the things “coming up on social media are not really based on science, and have no basis in fact”. The assumption then becomes that because consumers are not from a farm and “don’t know any different” (54), they are not capable of gathering information or engaging in informed analysis: yet another means of encoding critics as irrational, naïve, and driven by passion rather than reason. Meanwhile, this strategy is one of trust building, and specifically, convincing consumers that farmers are ‘just like you and I’; we all want the best for our loved ones, and ourselves, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. However, it does so while, ironically, further polarizing farmers and consumers, and deflecting attention from the deeper interests and effects of corporatized science and technology advancing conventional agriculture.

Conclusion: manoeuvrability and ways forward

This paper investigates how conventional interests are responding to AFMs, how discourse and identity are being mobilized, and for what material ends. I have shown the real and perceived threats experienced by conventional actors and how these threats are being re-deployed through the use of master codes. I emphasize that, as much as this is a battle for material power and interest, it is also a battle of identity. A unified conventional identity conceals very real tensions between farmers, while delimiting the range of agroecological tools and practices available to them. Of course, it is not just farmer identity politics that constrain the horizon of possible solutions, but there are significant political and cultural barriers as well.

At the same time, I have observed opportunities for resistance and manoeuvrability within these same spaces. First, through practices of open data sharing, farmers are using capital and technology to push back against corporate control in agri-food. Specifically, farmers are using online forums and social media—most commonly Twitter—to freely share real-time, on-farm crop and pest information and seek on-farm solutions. Indeed, such open, non-commercialized data sharing between different kinds of farmers (conventional and organic) could be cultivated and supported by AFMs in ways that encourage cross-network knowledge circulation and skill sharing, and offer viable alternatives to intensification. More broadly, rather than trying to perfect a monolithic agricultural model, we ought to support farming communities in designing and implementing production systems that work for them, according to the specific variables of their unique farm.

Second, these themes point clearly to rising individualism and economic competition between farmers. Nevertheless, to endure capitalization (and resist farm expulsion), farmers are participating in land and equipment sharing practices when possible. While farmers reflected on how difficult collectivized forms of production (land, tool and equipment sharing) and organizing has become, some nonetheless supported it. As one farmer reflects, “I wish more farmers would do that.” Because, “500 acres is nothing for these combines today.” (84) He went on to question why each farm had their own combine, and argued for equipment sharing as a stopgap to capitalization. He notes that land swapping is another means of adapting to capitalization in regions of large-scale, concentrated production: “I deal with another farmer here a bit, and he wants carrots and I want seed corn. So a lot of times he will take that farm and I will take his farm. We trade.” The hope here is that such practices could be leveraged to promote collective production and organizing, although, to do so, far more support would be required from public and non-profit entities. This form of organizing evokes a politics of the possible, and does not reduce initiatives to that which reinforce conventional and/or neoliberal logics, tendencies and visions (McInnes et al. 2017).

Third, numerous farmers highlighted the role that one-on-one, direct communication (between farmers and consumers/food activists) can play in building understanding and empathy across identities. One farmer reflects on a recent conversation with “five urban girls”: “I thought, ‘I’m going to have to defend agriculture here.’ And I didn’t have to! They asked very good questions.” They “genuinely wanted to know how food was being produced and if we were using good stewardship practices.” (30) Another farmer expresses his frustration with social media (i.e. that people “don’t have to provide proof” when they make claims online), favouring in-person dialogue, “most people, you can engage”. Even in Toronto, “everybody was pretty receptive” (26).

Those engaged in alternative networks highlighted similar themes of communication when reflecting on building their movement and better understanding farmer experiences. AFM’s are revising their communication approaches to focus on farmer’s needs and realities before expanding to related systemic issues. As one respondent puts it, “Maybe it is starting with an idea of ‘what is the problem for you [farmers] this year? Then maybe we can discuss why these issues are happening.” Another respondent argues for greater trust and solidarity between AFMs and farmers nurtured through long-term relationship building—both political and socio-cultural. Tangibly speaking, “if we want to change these agricultural communities and make them more sustainable, we need people to move there and be exemplary of those new practices that we want.” Another argues for more (formal and informal) collective spaces that deliberately bring together different perspectives to share voices, experiences and concerns. They caution that such spaces must balance rural and urban voices, “so no one is telling anyone else, or assuming what anyone else’s problems are, or that they know the solutions”.

Overall, in this paper I have shown how conventional agri-food identities, interests and spaces are being built and reproduced. Important components of this process concern the way in which conventional actors make sense of their reality as well as how the industry constructs some of its most vocal critics: specifically, AFM networks and actors. Together, the findings reveal a great deal about the dynamics and motivations that underpin the conventional sphere. They should also elucidate the ways in which identity and culture operate beyond the scale of the individual. Indeed, systemic problems are complex and difficult to address because the dynamics therein cannot be attributed to any one actor or scale: solutions must, likewise, be both collective and multiple.


  1. 1.

    I use the term alternative food ‘movements’ and ‘networks’ interchangeably (Alkon and Agyeman 2011; Cadieux and Slocum 2015). Both terms “refer to a constellation of individuals, NGOs, alliances, initiatives, companies, and government entities arranged in affiliations of different intensities and scales” (Levkoe 2006; Cadieux and Slocum 2015, p .2). ‘Networks’ are defined more specifically as a set of interactions and relations of power encompassing “economic and institutional forms” situated beyond the binaries of state and market (Murdoch 2000; Lockie 2006). Networks evolve through the efforts of government and non-governmental organizations as well as corporate firms to provide capital and material resources, “training, networking and support services in order to facilitate self-help, entrepreneurialism and capacity building” in accordance with shared beliefs, customs and practices (Lockie 2006, p. 23). In doing so, and perhaps most importantly, networks promote and perpetuate these (social, cultural, and political-economic) beliefs, customs and practices.

  2. 2.

    See the following for further insight into the impacts of industrial production on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change (MacRae et al. 2010; Camargo et al. 2013; Higgins et al. 2015), socio-ecological resilience (Rotz and Fraser 2015), soil and water pollution (Matson et al. 1997), animal welfare (Weis 2013; Schneider 2015), and the rise of ‘pseudo foods’ and obesity (Winson 2004, 2013; Guthman and Watts 2011), to name a few.

  3. 3.

    The non—or not so—consumptive work I refer to includes, but is not limited to, sustainable food production (improving land access for aspiring farmers/food gatherers, building Indigenous food systems and supporting farm transitioning), alternative food infrastructure (community food centres and community-based food storage and transport), and food justice (improving access to healthy food for marginalized communities and fighting for the rights of farm and food workers).

  4. 4.

    The control was that they grew grain corn within the past five rotations.

  5. 5.

    The numbers attached to farmer interview quotes refer to the farm number anonymized in the data. Focus group and expert interview quotes are not numbered.

  6. 6.

    This finding has been observed elsewhere (Burton 2004, 2012).

  7. 7.

    The broader political economic and ethical implications of big data in agriculture have been discussed—although rather scarcely—in academia and the popular media (Banham 2014; Bronson and Knezevic 2016; Carbonell 2016; Carolan 2016).

  8. 8.

    Notably, rural farmwomen within the conventional network occupy a rather different space. However, it is also underpinned by its own social, political and economic structures of patriarchy. For example, a farmer explains, “when the guys come in from farming in the morning and they sit at a table they want to talk their own talk, they don’t want some woman talking to them.”



Alternative food movement


Decision support systems


Genetically modified organism


Farm Credit Canada


Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs


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Thank you to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. As well, thank you to all of the research participants. This work is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships program (Grant No. CGV-SSHRC-00433).

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Rotz, S. Drawing lines in the cornfield: an analysis of discourse and identity relations across agri-food networks. Agric Hum Values 35, 441–456 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-017-9838-0

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  • Agri-food networks
  • Power
  • Discourse
  • Identity
  • Conventional agriculture
  • Alternative food movements (AFM)