My research / talks


This is a transcript of my presentation at the Oxford Internet Institute's 'Urban Food Futures' seminar. The presentation is based on ethnographic research conducted at MyFarm, an initiative by the National Trust to reconnect people with where food comes from. It includes commentary on the experiment's capacity to help us toward more sustainable food practices.


Sections:

1. MyFarm background (or read my article in The Daily Telegraph for something more user friendly)

2. Comment on the key seminar theme, namely: can we make a case that ICTs are here helping towards a more sustainable trajectory for the food system?



PART 1

The National Trust
The National Trust is the UK’s largest membership organisation and conservation-focused charity founded in 1895: “to look after places of historic interest or natural beauty” The Trust is also one of the UK’s largest landowners owning 250,000 hectares and the UK’s largest farmer, because 80% of its land is farmed by tenants.

In 2010 the National Trust reviewed its objectives and set: “an ambitious vision that by 2020 everyone will feel like a member of the National Trust and that five million people will be.” To achieve its vision for growth it recognises that it must: “challenge the perception that we are some sort of exclusive club for connoisseurs.” 

Digital media are central to the means of achieving the National Trust’s vision. It has been using Twitter, Flickr and Facebook to: “encourage greater public participation…[and]…reach wider audiences,” (National Trust 2010a p19). These efforts have seen it rank 13th in the most recent fundraising charity social media league tables in terms of ‘presence’.

To understand MyFarm here’s a quick introduction to Home Farm
Home Farm is a commercial farm, owned by the National Trust in Cambridgeshire.

It is unusual in being a visiting farm which attracts 120,000 visitors per year. The National Trust considers it to be its: “role to reconnect people with farming, and to promote care for the land.”
MyFarm extends the mission of Home Farm and the National Trust’s head, Dame Fiona Reynolds, casts MyFarm as “the start of more interesting territory – not just online information, but active engagement,” (Director magazine 2011), highlighting the appeal of the privileged access granted by MyFarm to an otherwise inaccessible world and the incentive to learn that responsibility for real outcomes is thought to offer.

My-farm.org.uk
The MyFarm ‘experiment’, an experiment in the collaborative online management of a real farm, commenced on May 4, 2011, with the launch of a website which welcomes visitors with a video of Home Farm manager ‘Farmer Morris’ explaining the purpose of the project. The homepage otherwise consists of a rotating news feed providing updates every day or two on activity at the farm, the most recent entry on each of three of the most active discussion fora, a link to the MyFarm live webcam page, a link to a map of Home Farm, a link to a page about visiting Home Farm and a link to the National Trust website

You’ll notice £30 call to join for the privilege of debating in the discussion fora and voting online using a simple voting mechanism on typically binary choices set by Farmer Morris one or twice a month, such as which variety of seed to plant in a specific field. Debates around voting times are focused on the merits of the options presented, with guidance materials in the form of video interviews with experts and factsheets silent to become involved, compiled by a digital team secreted in a small room in the farmhouse – an unusual sight.

The entire website, including all discussions and sporadic live webcam footage, is otherwise open to all visitors to view but not to contribute.

Other relevant points:
The National Trust was largely unaware of who exactly would answer the call for participants and unsure in what numbers, an important factor in deciding the fate of the project – it was originally given 3 months to make progress towards the target of 6,000 members (the point at which it would recoup investment costs of £200,000) and beyond that the target of 10,000 which it was thought is a viable number to support using this configuration of technology. MyFarmers are anonymous.
There are over 2,000 MyFarmers, short of the target but the project has delivered other benefits for the National Trust vis a vis its stated aims above (for example lots of positive media coverage which gets the organisation in front of a more diverse audience than usual) and people were contributing actively and other ideas about how to expand membership were suggested, so it was kept going
No involvement in the physical farm is offered beyond encouragement to come as a visitor – many members have expressed an interest in some kind of involvement but distance from the farm is also a consideration


PART 2

My general area of interest is digital applications that bind people into social collectives. My analytical weapon of choice was public sphere theory which offers a promising conceptual tool to understand how and why digital formations emerge, survive and thrive.

I seek this understanding from both the perspectives of the organisations and individuals that are involved in their realisation. I understand MyFarm as both a public place and a publicly circulating media object.

I conducted four months of participant observation at MyFarm and Home Farm this year. As I explained to everyone I met, I was there to get under the bonnet but my interest was the people rather than the animals and crops.

Let me just start by saying something rather unexpected in present company and that is: “I couldn't care less about learning where my food comes from….”

You will be glad to hear they are not my words but the words of one of my informants: She is a management consultant and she is curious about farm finances.

She is not unusual though in both being of a demographic and expressing a motivation to participate that I think I am right in saying the MyFarm team found surprising in the first wave of members. In fact most of the first couple of thousand members were individual adults for whom MyFarm means different things. For some it is predominantly a chance to evoke a past perhaps spent growing up on a farm, or it’s a way to relate to their grandchildren who they have also signed up; it’s a taste of the English countryside because they live abroad, or it’s a source of practical information to help them in their ambition to own a smallholding.

So where does that leave MyFarm’s key ambition to educate about how food is produced? Well, as long as it satisfies these other needs and keeps people engaged, we can surmise that learning is happening: in fact the members have been surveyed and agree it’s happening. So what are they learning and can we make a case, the concern of this seminar, that ICTs are here somehow helping towards a more sustainable trajectory for the food system by providing a conduit to influence peoples’ consumption choices in favour of particular sources for example? Well, this is difficult because although when MyFarm began its focus was very much on organic farming by virtue of Richard Morris’ decision to take Home Farm on this route, the experiment must remain agnostic between production methods to retain the support of the wider farming community who have harboured suspicions that it is a front for the Soil Association (i.e. the organic lobby). To further complicate things, the degree and nature of learning and applications to which it is put are not assessed rigorously by MyFarm. Finally, it is debatable whether organic farming is an alternative to conventional farming per se. In other words, the experiment portrays broadly conventional farming practices, it is about sustainability to the extent that the project leaders want it to be (especially given the control exercisable over the online arena in which debate takes place) and we can’t be sure what lessons participants are learning or how this feeds back into making progress towards a more sustainable trajectory for our food sourcing. The question of MyFarm’s contribution to resolving the seminar question is left open.

A second way ICTs might here somehow help towards a more sustainable trajectory for the food system is through a farm being made receptive to communication from outside about the way it should conduct its affairs. Voting is ostensibly something that differentiates MyFarm from being a simple talking shop and perhaps offers a direct way to exert influence where it most matters – on the business model of mainstream farming. The rhetoric at MyFarm’s launch certainly suggests lots of freedom to perhaps shape a new model farm and on joining some MyFarmers were under the misapprehension that ‘crowdsourcing’ solutions presented more radical possibilities rather than being designed as a way to engage and also encourage learning around a theme, with a deadline of voting day. But the reality is best captured by a comment from the farm manager: “It’s not an open invitation to grow bananas”: in other words Richard has a farm to run and clearly states his need to ensure profitability. The choices offered to MyFarmers are deliberately within strict parameters. Most people accept this because they are there at least in part to learn where our food comes from, namely conventional farms (around 75% of the UK’s food comes from conventional farms in the UK and Europe). Some of the farmers rigorously toe the line. Here, one farmer strenuously denies the accusations of an interloper that any of the participants have “hippy” tendencies:

I certainly don't think of the project as any kind of 'agri-utopia'. It's a working farm, period. My main aim is to make a monetary profit. If that can be done while also providing sustainability then great.”

Incidentally he is in alignment with the 79% of farmers in Defra’s 2008 Farming practices survey who agreed that ‘farming is about maximising profit’.

Beyond this acceptance of current practices, many members demonstrate a concern to divine Farmer Morris’ true wishes during a vote to make him happy because they assume this must be the right path.

I have nothing against profit but we’re not talking a brave new world – either an agri utopia or a digital utopia.

Nevertheless, with the possibility raised of some kind of influence we can draw parallels with the ‘participation experiments’ written about by Mahony in ‘Rethinking the Public’, which occur in another opaque and technical realm run by an elite that is geographically removed from the rest of the population, namely politics. (I say elite in reference to the claim by The Small and Family Farms Association that within a generation, fewer than 10,000 people will decide what is grown in Britain. This presents a nice but inadvertent correspondence to MyFarm’s subscription objective). In participation experiments, which these days often involve digital tools which are invariably cast as inherently democratising, structures are left unchanged by the elites…

….but not necessarily unchallenged.

What I found happening at MyFarm, as with participation experiments, is a process of ‘translation’ (drawing on Callon, Latour and Bourdieu) against imposed parameters – but primarily at the level of the website environment. This is something my dissertation ended up being about and I followed a breakaway ‘sub-public’ which set up the ‘MyFarmopedia’ as a way to overcome architectural/technological/aesthetic constraints to interaction and the organisation of information. These challenges are of a different order to challenges to the structures of mainstream farming and concern the microenvironment of the initiative’s structure itself.

Ultimately you have to look to the National Trust for a more complete explanation of what is going on at MyFarm and also appreciate something else about what has been happening at MyFarm that is working to build bridges between the specialised field of farming and the general public (and that might provide some foundations to and create conditions for a constructive debate about a more sustainable trajectory for the food system).

The National Trust is an organisation keen to demonstrate it is accessible, relevant and about more than stately homes, rather than about changing the organisation of farming or encouraging people to make particular consumption choices – there is nothing wrong with that. (It is not even clear that if the project was explicitly about changing the way farming works rather than learning something through hands on (or at least mouse on) involvement, this would have been much of an inducement to join, at least to the people who did sign up). It faces the same dilemma as any organisation which invites people onto its turf (which I also discuss in my dissertation in terms of a blurring of boundaries and the emergence of ‘organised publics’ and ‘public organisations’ on the Internet), namely managing what it might interpret as challenges to its authority. In having a largely compliant MyFarm membership it has been lucky (a £30 barrier to entry might have something to do with that) but it has faced more serious criticism than that outlined above about the technological architecture of MyFarm and has moved to close this down. The unfortunate incident of Queenie, a shire horse whose pregnancy would end in a much heralded live webcam birth illustrates my point. The foal died on air and wrath descended from non MyFarmers who were able at the time to comment about the handling of the birth on the news section only, thereby encroaching through the cracks into the walled garden that is MyFarm.

Queenie, an animal, allows an observation about humans and the possibility of MyFarm changing anything, in line with the seminar question. There was a clear difference between the response of MyFarmers and non MyFarmers to the incident. MyFarm had succeeded in fostering a sense of member empathy with the farm staff and members rallied around to defend them against the criticisms of outsiders. MyFarm therefore suggests that alliances can be forged between the public and farmers (even as it simultaneously confirms to farmers the lack of comprehension of their lot that exists more widely, seen in the criticism from the general public). In this way MyFarm can be seen as a sociological ‘boundary object’ (Bowker and Star) which admits of many interpretations that makes dialogue possible between conventional farming and the public and could therefore help create the conditions for a debate about a sustainable trajectory where the will exists on the part of the consuming public and producing farmers.