Fieldnotes: Week 2

I’ve been on research and study leave for two weeks now. This is what’s happened and what I’ve learned so far.

TVNZ Sunday broadcast an expose on animal cruelty in NZ dairy farming, and there was a lively social media response from farmers to the broadcast and subsequent UK-based advertising campaign – see #agchatnz#caring4calves and #wecare4calves. I also wrote a NZ Herald Op-Ed in response, which got a fair amount of sharing and a surprisingly calm online discussion going.

NZ Herald Op-Ed

The most valuable thing I learned from all this was in a deceptively simple comment from dairy farmer Charlie McCaig, in response to my complaint that #agchatnz farmers seemed to be rather disinterested in my piece:

Twitter replies

This made me reflect on the timing of interventions into public controversies. Because I didn’t have the same stake in the issues as either activists or farmers, my concerns didn’t share the same space as their concerns and possibly allowed them to be ignored more easily. And because this early space was also a strongly affective space, the timing of my comments may also have isolated me from empathetic sharing. Of course I recognise myself as both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the controversy, but the broader context of my op-ed more clearly positioned me as ‘outside.’ I’ll pay more attention to that in the future, but it also helped me articulate my general position:


I’m not sure what will happen next. I’m still not convinced that MPI should be responsible for enforcing livestock animal welfare, and I’m going to make an OIA request about how the FarmWatch report has been handled. But I was also heartened to see some positive action taken and support this call “for the industry, including dairy farms, transport companies and slaughter premises, to establish an integrated welfare-focussed system designed to independently audit bobby calf management throughout the supply chain.” I think I’m also of the mind, following Temple Grandin, that CCTV monitoring of abattoirs is not a bad idea–even though I normally oppose workplace surveillance.

In other news, I also attended the AgriFood XXII Conference in Queenstown. The highlight for me was finally meeting Annemarie Mol, whose research I’ve been following for the past 15 years. In fact, her work on care in practice (intro chapter pdf) was instrumental in formulating my sabbatical project.

I really enjoyed several papers, but was especially impressed by Cassie McTavish‘s Master’s research on ANT, cows and storytelling in productionist dairy farming. Here’s the abstract:

“Dairy cows are naturally playful, clever and caring beings and although they do not speak in a similar tongue, they are also embodied food consumers and producers of this world that deserve to have their story told. Through an anthropological appropriation of Actor Network Theory, my research in rural Manawatu explores how dairy cow/dairy farmer networks form and reform (in part) through unintentional and intentional dairy cow agency. Seeking ways of understanding the complexities inherent in dairy cow/dairy farmer relationships, I enrolled dairy cows as ethnographic research participants. Embodied, sensory and empathic participant observation methods led to understandings of how humanimal relationships form across species boundaries. In this presentation I use storytelling to share the lives of dairy cows, and their lives with the dairy farmers who work and live with them. To illuminate dairy cows’ participation in more-than-human aspects of worlds of food, I draw on a creative and explorative approach to presenting non-human voices. Rather than considering a dairy cow as only a food producing and consuming actor, in this paper I invite you to let your imagination wander a little and ponder the idea that although a cow cannot jump over the moon, it does not mean she might not dream to.”

Raised on a dairy farm, Cassie is a classic example of insider/outsider anthropologist, and her focus on how humans and cows are bound to each other reveals how complicated things like the bobby calf controversy actually are–and how both farmer and activist identities/ideologies actually avoid the ‘humanimal’ by relying on strict boundaries between people and animals that encourage ‘for’ or ‘against’ positioning.

I’ll need to think this through some more, but I know it’s related to something else that’s been happening around my research that I wasn’t prepared for: hostility from other researchers. When I explain that I’m studying livestock death, there always appears to be someone who believes that the only ethical approach to this kind of work is to firmly oppose livestock farming. I obviously disagree with this position, but I do need to find a way to better manage these exchanges as I find them rather upsetting. It hurts to be accused of being cruel or unethical, and it’s incredibly confusing when I understand my aim as both practicing and understanding how others practice *care*.

On some level it’s a simple disagreement on first principles: I believe in welfarism, not abolitionism. On another level it’s a matter of intellectual discipline: I support cultural relativism, not moralism. And then there’s the matter of politics, or avoiding antagonism because that commitment has an important role to play in agonism and cosmopolitanism–or “learning to ‘think with’ instead of only defining and judging.” In any case, I recognise that I need to find ways of folding these differences and disagreements into my ethnographic analysis because they’re no small part of my research subject and my personal experience.

And finally, my auto-ethnographic project is proceeding nicely. With the neighbours, we’ve bought two steers that will graze across our properties and be slaughtered on-farm in early winter. Ernest, the new ram, has hopefully impregnated at least one of the ewes so I can expect lambs in 4-5 months time. It’ll be a while until the lambs are killed, but since I’ll be doing that myself I’m not really in a rush. I’m also kind of enjoying not actually knowing if the ewes are pregnant. I’ve seen large-scale ewe scanning and sorting, and it’s pretty fascinating, but with only four ewes I look forward to seeing if and how their bodies/dispositions change–as well as making sure they’re given the care they would need if they were pregnant. And, of course, to the potential surprise!

(Ernest is an Arapawa Island-Merino cross, Ursula is a Pitt Island-Arapawa Island cross, and her girls are 3/4 Arapawa Island. As feral sheep they pretty much breed year-round or have an extended breeding season like the Merino, so I’m not too worried about winter lambing. In my case, as with other smallholders, the ram is in with the ewes all the time anyway, so control over breeding is pretty much nil. I just hope to be home when any lambs are born and plan to have wee wool jumpers ready!)

Otherwise, I continue to spend as much time as possible with the sheep and find them incredibly good company. Ernest still won’t come any closer to me than 3-4 metres and I’ve never heard him make a sound, but his presence has effected the flock. Ursula originally seemed to take him in like one of her lambs but now he spends more time on his own, and always sort of watching over the girls. I want to train him to take sheep nuts, but it’s proving difficult and they really don’t need the extra feed right now. Grace has become less affectionate, but I hope that’s only because of a mild case of scabby mouth making her feel a bit crap. (No doubt brought on by the heavy rains and my inattention to removing thistles from the paddocks before she ate some and cut up her mouth. Failure of care!) I’m also keeping an eye on Emmaline, who loves head-butting so much that she’s managed to break off one of her scurs and leave a bloody stump. Grace did the same a couple of months ago and healed beautifully, so I’m not worried. And then yesterday Ursula did her own version of the sarcastic sheep, and I couldn’t stop laughing! Seriously wonderful animals, each their own person.

Addendum: I also got ethics approval for my participant observation research, which will begin at the end of January (after a much needed holiday). Woo hoo!