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Working the Plantationocene

In the context of foreign-owned industrial farms in Brazil, the concept of the Plantationocene shows the racial dynamics of power and capital even as it obscures the fighting back of people, plants, and soils.

Published onFeb 07, 2021
Working the Plantationocene
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A small group of young white North American farmers has migrated to Brazil to start soybean megafarms. They finished college and wanted to start their own farms; not happy to work on their parents’ farms and unable to purchase land on their own, they were inspired by glossy pages of farm journals that showed lines of combines harvesting massive fields of soy. Reporters declared that ideal growing conditions and an agribusiness-friendly government made farming easy in Brazil. The farmers toured farms in Western Bahia, Brazil, near the city of agribusiness, Luis Eduardo Magalhães, and at the frontier of soybean production in the Brazilian Cerrado, returning with dreams of ten thousand soy fields. They courted investors, often retired and active farmers from their home counties, purchased massive tracts of flat, cheap land, and began their Brazilian experiments. These farms resemble plantations in many ways: they hire a large, racialized workforce; workers live on the farm and farmers live in a nearby city; and farmers have little social attachment to the land, workers, or plants. Further, the farmers’ time in Brazil is often temporary. They work there until they are able to take over operations of family farms in the United States. When they talk about their futures, they talk about farming and business practices that they will bring back from Brazil, not long-term commitments in Brazil. These practices include soil management techniques, as well as business tactics like hiring farm workers to do farm labor and becoming a manager. Work here resembles a plantation and reflects what many are now calling the Plantationocene.

The Plantationocene describes the “ever-greater ferocity in globalized factory meat production, monocrop agribusiness, and immense substitutions of crops like oil palm for multispecies forests and their products that sustain human and nonhuman critters alike” (Haraway 2015, 162). The plantation simplifies landscapes by removing original plants, animals, and people and replacing them with workers and cash crops; alienates those workers and plants from places and purposes otherwise; and remakes them as plantation resources. Relocation and alienation of animals, plants, people, and microbes are key processes in the Plantationocene (Haraway et al. 2016). Aside from human control and domination of nature, and beyond the alienation of microbes and plants, the plantation features racist division of labor founded on principles of slavery and settler colonialism (Davis et al. 2019). The plantation was made possible by processes of removal and recombination. Plantation owners appropriated land, cleared it of people and plants, and disrupted local economic flows, then replaced plants with commercial cash crops from afar, replaced original inhabitants with a racialized workforce, and connected the plantation to global circuits of capital, all brought together, but alienated from place.

My aim here is not to advocate for the Plantationocene over sister terms of Capitalocene and Anthropocene, but as Kathryn Yussoff (2018) writes of the Anthropocene, to explore its contexts. What does it show, and what does it obscure? What it illuminates is the process of alienation, separation, and recombination. It shows racial dynamics of plantation farming, it shows power, capital, and biocontrol. However, it obscures the fighting back of people, plants, soils, and animals, and microbes. In the remainder of this essay, I will first explore the ways farmers use labor, land, and plants, land on their farms to identify convergence and divergence from the plantation model and, second, explore the ways that this project faces resistance from people, soils, and plants to enrollment in the Plantationocene.

Work

The plantation model of labor depends on the replacement of local communities by workers from outside the region, somewhat fixed relationships between workers and owners, and racialized worker relations; the American farms in Brazil fit this in some ways. U.S. farm owners in Western Bahia often visit the farm a few times per week to meet with managers, check on progress in the fields, assure things are in working order on the farms, and make an appearance, but otherwise leave the fieldwork to farm workers, mostly hired from the immediate region.

They had told investors that they knew how to farm and just needed capital for land, but quickly learned that managing a 30,000 hectare farm with 130 farm workers is much different than operating a thousand-acre family farm in Illinois. Their farms cobble together displaced workers; soybean seeds that have been bred in the U.S. and Brazil and then spliced with a bacteria from soil bacteria, and land that is not only dispossessed from local populations, but remains unattached as farm families live either hours away in the capital of agribusiness, Luis Eduardo Magalhães, or in the United States. Their work in Brazil is transformed. In Brazil they became more fully capitalist, hiring farm workers and becoming managers themselves. They also became managers of capital—dependent on outside finance, even if this financing came more often from neighboring farmers than from Wall Street. They adopted flexible farming as a strategy which minimized belonging, attachment, and stability in favor of interchangeable parts (Ofstehage 2018a) and financialized their labor, values of farming, and farm assets (Ofstehage 2018b). This transformation advanced unevenly. As farmers attested, it’s easy to farm in Brazil, but it’s hard to become a Brazilian farmer (Ofstehage 2016). They had to learn to be managers, to follow the strict environmental and worker regulations of Brazil, and manage the expectations and demands of far off investors. Within the family, the very meaning and value of farming came into question as older generations questioned what about this new way of life constituted farming. Younger generations argued that this was the future of farming.

Workers are regarded as low-skilled positions and easily replaced by other workers or machinery. The farm workers are divided according to teams of hoers, machinery operators, cotton gin workers, agronomy advisors, managers, and front office employees, including accountants, lawyers, and public relations staff. The clearest marker among these distinctions is race. White Sulistas (Brazilians from the southern states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul) operate heavy machinery and work in managerial positions, while local Baianos (primarily Afro-Brazilians) from the surrounding area south of Luis Eduardo Magalhães work as manual laborers. Of these two groups, the second is far more likely to be seasonally hired or released, replaced by machinery, and treated as unskilled workers.

One divergence from the plantation model is that workers are not expected to make a long-term commitment to the farm and neither is the farm owner expected to invest in the worker. Tea plantations in India, for example, provide hereditary employment, gardening plots, and other ways of connecting workers to the plantation (Besky 2017). On the flexible farm, work is alienated from the farmer by outsourcing the labor and a bureaucratization of worker relations, which are governed more by minimal work requirements determined by Brazilian law than by reciprocal, if patriarchal, relations common to plantation economies. Brazilian worker projections require three written warnings for farmworkers to be fired; rural worker associations negotiate with farmer associations to determine minimum working wages; and regulations on farmworker housing stipulates a basic standard of living. While several farmers described an interest in creating jobs in Brazil, they quickly lost interest in the well-being of workers because of the strength of the farm worker federation. Labor regulations and labor power slow down the flexibilization of work in that farmers cannot treat workers as they please; they also forestall elements of the Plantation in that farmers provide housing, wages, and job security not according to logics of the gift, but according to bureaucratic regulations.

Land

Bruno Latour refers to the Plantationocene as “a historical ‘de-soilization’ of the Earth” (Latour et al. 2018). But while American farmers dispossess local communities from their land and alienate themselves from family land, their encounters with Brazilian Cerrado soil requires careful and intensive soil engagement. The flat, amenable landscape of Western Bahia allows for a simplification of production. Flat topographies allow large farm machinery to easily pass through a field; large swaths of agro-ecologically consistent land encourage monocultural practices; and amenability of the land to green revolution technology allows both the implementation of industrial farming practices and a programmatization of farming tasks. And yet the soils, which farmers call “barren,” call for a much deeper engagement than the soils of the U.S. Midwest.

First, clearing the Cerrado is required to open the land for production, then heavy application of lime to raise the pH of the “acid lands” of the Cerrado, and finally farmers add massive amounts of fertilizer (or “put on fertility”) and implement no-tillage practices to “build up” the soil. Not only do they adapt new practices to make the Cerrado productive to industrial agriculture, they adopt narratives of improvement in their relation to the land, despite processes of soil degradation tied to industrial agriculture in a complex ecosystem. Not only does this engagement entail deforestation of savannah and degradation of the soil, it generates new discourses of land and soil improvement that lend legitimacy to further exploitation and practices that entrench industrial agriculture in formerly marginal lands.

Plants, Generativity, and Plantations

Soy is the ideal monocrop in many ways, allowing it to work for the plantation and also minimize work for the plantation (Hetherington 2020). Farmers I interviewed often spoke of labor-saving technology not as a means of reducing burden, or even reducing costs, but as reducing liability to worker protections. But monocrops are also weedy. Fertilizations and low plant competition favors quick growing annuals, a feature shared by field crops and most weeds; plentiful, uniform plant populations are ideal for diseases like soybean rust, insect pests like the miniscule, pesky white fly—with little biological control and endless food. The plantation is designed to alienate and separate, but once outside of the plant science greenhouse and planted in a field, diseases, insects, and plants complicate this separation. Soy is put to work for the plantation (Besky and Blanchette 2019), and yet its production still requires constant maintenance. In recent years whitefly, a tiny sucking insect that is not affected by most insecticides, has become a constant pest to soy growers in Western Bahia. Soybean rust spread rapidly through Brazil in the 2000s and requires constant observation and expensive fungicide applications in the field.

On one side of the Plantationocene is the process of simplification and control of landscapes and assemblages of things and people, on the other is the life that proliferates from the ecological spaces created by simplification. Together, simplification and proliferation remind us that while plantations aim to simplify and alienate, that process is always incomplete as life proliferates and makes space for itself. It is challenging to consider what life is generated by the proliferation of transnational soybean farms in Brazil because they are easily connected with processes of deforestation, dispossession, and displacement. But to disregard processes of generation misses the power of Cerrado life to transform. The soy plant, alienated first from East Asia, then from U.S. soy fields on its way to Brazil is also not totally out of place. Decades of breeding directed by the state agricultural research body, Embrapa, has produced new varieties of soy that are suited to the day-length, soils, and pests of the Brazilian Cerrado. The Cerrado land is not wholly alienated, either; this is apparent in farmers’ annual fight to “build” the Cerrado soil to make it productive for crop production and painfully obvious when prairie fires remind farmers that the Cerrado was never tamed. The workers too, in resisting relationships of reciprocity in favor of legally defined worker rights backed by powerful farm worker associations, refuse to be bound by the barbed-wire fences of the plantation.

References

Besky, Sarah. 2017. “Fixity: On the Inheritance and Maintenance of Tea Plantation Houses in Darjeeling, India.” American Ethnologist 44(4): 617–31.

Besky, Sarah, and Alex Blanchette, eds. 2019. How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet. Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press.

Davis, Janae, Alex A. Moulton, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams. 2019. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, . . . Plantationocene? A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises.” Geography Compass 13(5): e12438.

Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6(1): 159–65.

Haraway, Donna, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott F. Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing, and Nils Bubandt. 2016. “Anthropologists Are Talking—about the Anthropocene.” Ethnos 81(3): 535–64.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2020. The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Latour, Bruno, Isabelle Stengers, Anna Tsing, and Nils Bubandt. 2018. “Anthropologists Are Talking—about Capitalism, Ecology, and Apocalypse.” Ethnos 83(3): 587–606.

Ofstehage, Andrew. 2016. “Farming Is Easy, Becoming Brazilian Is Hard: North American Soy Farmers’ Social Values of Production, Work and Land in Soylandia.” Journal of Peasant Studies 43(2): 442–60.

_____. 2018a. “Farming out of Place: Transnational Family Farmers, Flexible Farming, and the Rupture of Rural Life in Bahia, Brazil.” American Ethnologist 45(3): 317–29.

_____. 2018b. “Financialization of Work, Value, and Social Organization among Transnational Soy Farmers in the Brazilian Cerrado.” Economic Anthropology 5(2): 274–85.

Yusoff, Kathryn. 2018. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Comments
23
AR
Andrea Rissing: Literal barbed wire fences? There’s no livestock, right? So something else being kept out? This is such a powerful image to end on, but it also left me scratching my head a little…why would a soy plantation with worker protections need barbed wire?? 
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: I moved this up into the land section - but yes, very tall strong barbed wire fences. They were built to keep “thieves” out of the farm, but I think along with the palm trees and armed guards they are also somewhat aesthetic and meant to show the power of the place.
AR
Andrea Rissing: Another sentence or two here explaining the connections between uniformity, annuals, and mechanization might be useful for readers not super familiar with ag? The first three sentences feel a little disjointed
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: Yes, not a clear set of sentences here -I’ve re-written it and added some notes on the agronomy at work here.
AR
Andrea Rissing: This sentence is confusing to me – what kind of shallow engagement with Midwestern soils are you thinking of? That the hard work of prairie breaking was completed over a century ago, that the work is already done? 
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: I’ve re-written this sentence - what I’m trying to convey here is that in the U.S. the farmers need to apply a baseline of fertilizer every year and may choose to adopt no-till to conserve soil and labor, but in Brazil they need to apply more kinds of and more amounts of fertilizer, and need to adopt no-till in order to conserve soil moisture AND they have to clear the vegetation. They complain about the soils being difficult, but also talk about caring for it.
AR
Andrea Rissing: This section is so interesting to me because it’s really bringing up historical narratives of breaking tallgrass prairie in the Midwest. Are the plantations in Brazil you’re describing formed partially through nostalgia for those histories? Is some of what’s being carried over not only management ideals and spreadsheets and fertilizer, but also mythologies and lore and legends about what agricultural pioneers do?
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: I’ve added a paragraph on this - it’s a very interesting connection and one that speaks to both the farmers and their investors. It’s also deeply connected to the “March to the West” discourse that exists in Brazil
AR
Andrea Rissing: This paragraph and the above, it would be helpful to have a little more weaving in of the plantation/plantationocene – how is what you’re laying out conforming to plantationocene? The first sentence of the following paragraph makes it sound like everything in this section until now has been labor dynamics that you see as adhering to the plantationocene model, is that right?
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: An excellent suggestion - I’ve added some remarks to relate both paragraphs back to the plantation and Plantationocene discussion.
AR
Andrea Rissing: This is probably not for this essay, but there’s something really interesting about the fact that this dynamic you’re describing – a more ‘classic’ agrarian capitalist tiered structure – accompanies and requires the removal of family farmers from their families. Take a farmer out of the family/household context, and the long-predicted fracture happens immediately, even if the owner was socialized into family farm values. 
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: Yes! And it goes backwards too. They return to their home farms and tell their families that they need to change their family farm values as well.
AR
Andrea Rissing: This might just be a missing word – from the immediate region or from outside it (as the first sentence of this paragraph says)?
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: This is imprecise language on my part. They are from the broader region of Bahia, but not from the municipality. I’ve corrected this on the new copy, thank you.
AR
Andrea Rissing: Does the term “plantationocene” obscure in different ways than “capitalocene” or “Anthropocene”? I think I can see how employing “plantationocene” directs our attention to different facets of soy in Brazil than those other terms would, but at this point I’m still wondering if and how obscuring efforts to “fight back” is tied to the plantationocene’s particular blind spots, or if this is a function of any such “-ocene” labels. Maybe would be helpful to spend a little more time explaining plantations vs plantationocenes? 
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: This is super important - I have clarified a bit about what the plantationocene frame is claiming in terms of control and simplification here and in the last section to clarify how the concept frames a landscape of control and how pests defy this and workers defend against this.
AR
Andrea Rissing: Would be good to not leave unstated that these people are all men (I’m assuming??)
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: Yes, absolutely. Thanks!
AR
Andrea Rissing: Andrew, I think you’ve done a really impressive job of weaving together theoretical perspectives with history and ethnography in a tight space. I have a couple questions and comments/ideas below, but I think the main thing I’d suggest you think through while revising is more explanation of what exactly the plantationocene misses, and why those blind spots (the rust, new soy varieties, and forms of worker resistance) are unique to its lenses. This might mean more upfront discussion of the plantationocene, and/or weaving it through the body sections a bit more. More balanced space dedicated to work/land/plants may also be helpful. So looking forward to seeing the final version! Thanks for the invitation to be involved with this piece, of course please let me know if any of my notes are confusing, etc. Very happy to talk more, your work is super interesting to think about from my perspective.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: Thank you Andrea, I have tried to address these comments throughout and particularly worked to relate each paragraph back to the plantationocene/plantation. I’ve also evened out my engagement with work/plants/land though it remains somewhat unalanced.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: Wow — thanks for the opportunity to read this and engage with it! I really enjoyed it and look forward to future discussions about this work. I hope my comments make sense as in-line commentary. Since this is all open, feel free to get in touch with me for any clarification.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: I really like the tone you’ve adopted for this, giving it a sort of mythic quality. There are a couple of verb-tense slippages later on which you should watch out for, but overall the voice makes it engaging and allows you to cover a lot of ground. As you’ll see, most of my comments are requests for more detail or more specificity, which I recognize militates a little bit against the fairy-tale quality of your recounting, and also is a bit impossible given the space constraints. So many of these comments are probably just invitations to a larger discussion.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: Kind words, thank you Kregg. I’m aiming for engaging writing, but also detail-oriented and clear - your comments are helpful in getting there. As well as Andrea’s in not just dropping barbed-wire fences without explanation.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: I like this qualification a lot. I have a half-finished open question here about whether the analytic deployed here is about context or about genealogy. That is, if the kinship between soy farms and plantations is not so much analogical (there’s a form whose repetition is useful to explore) but rather genealogical (it’s useful to think about how plantations of yore begat the monocrops of today).
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: Again, without going too much into history, I have tried to shift towards this processual approach rather than a horizontal comparison, I think it’s helpful and I hope it’s working.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: I’d be curious to hear more about this “soy working” in local vernaculars. I wrote briefly about this (for Besky and Blanchette!) in this post: https://culanth.org/fieldsights/when-plants-farm-themselves The argument I tried to tease out here (and in parts of my book) has to do with the polysemic quality of vitalist language in these agrarian settings, where life and work collapse in on each other as generative processes. I think there’s a lot yet to be teased out of that discursive space, including ways in which it obscures some of the politics of work. In this case, perhaps it isn’t the shadow of vitalism that’s operating discursively. Besky and Blanchette’s collection (as well as their two amazing monographs) offer a range of other ways in which these languages collapse on each other but can also be held apart.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: This is an excellent point - I’ve tried to note the ways soy more specifically, and to recognize how it’s simplification allows farmers to programmatize farming (as Lapegna shows) and reduce labor (as you argue elsewhere).
KH
Kregg Hetherington: I think this is a key point, and one I've been puzzling over for a while. Following on my last comment, it's tempting to read the proliferation of feral lifeforms (like soybean rust) as merely another kind of life thriving in blasted landscapes, and while this is somewhat novel to the multi-species literature, it also has deep roots in vitalist language about both biology and work. But is there a way to develop an analytics that acknowledges these forms of proliferation without inviting a false equivalence or a matsutake-like celebration? Furthermore, the analogy being hinted at here, between pests on one hand and farm workers associations on the other (i.e. as proliferating forms of life that interfere with plantation logics) elides a key distinction: rust and white flies are opportunists, thriving as blight in a blasted landscape, while the associations are political assemblages trying to hang onto an ideal of 20th-century welfare; they are not so much opportunists but defenses against labour flexibilization. I struggled really hard in my own work to keep these distinct even while recognizing their entanglements.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: This is great and I’d like to sit down and discuss it sometimes. I think your distinction between the workers and the ecological life is extremely important and very helpful here. I’ve tried to make the distinction clear and added notes on how despite opportunism and defense, workers are still exploited and the cerrado is still being destroyed.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: The comparison is interesting, but it could be more helpful to compare either to farm labour arrangements in the US (which I assume are similarly bureaucratic, with that “family” twist thrown in) or to prior arrangements in Brazil, which would have passed through both classic plantation slavery and then hacienda-style patronage before landing on this model. This sounds like a pretty classic capitalist setup where owners may speak in some contexts about "providing" for their workers, while in the day-to-day they're merely frustrated with the way that unions control what "providing" actually means. In that context, the evocation of the gift is interesting, because I think it speaks more to an aspiration to patronage written into US capitalist ethics than to the specific local histories of agrarian clientilism. But I’d love to hear how the farmers themselves elaborate this tension.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: I like this suggestion - I added a sentence to compare with labor dynamic on NY dairy farms where workers are in some ways invited to become part of the family. It sounds nice, but workers don’t really WANT to be part of the family - so it becomes a matter of unpaid work and social demands. I’ve also added a note on how some farmers are replacing workers with machinery, not to save money, but to not have to deal with workers.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: I’d be curious to hear more here about the relationship between land and soil in the division you’ve chosen here. Following the vernaculars I’m more familiar with in Paraguay, I would characterize this section of the paper as being about soil, while the previous one is about the relationship between land and labour.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: This comparison needs some unpacking. More fully capitalist than what? Above, they seem to be coming out of US colleges, presumably bound for farm management and investment somewhere. So is the Brazilian scene really that different from what they would aspire to in the US? Below you allude to divisions within families over whether or not this kind of work constitutes proper farming -- but what are the exact distinctions being talked about? Or is the tension here one that is really internal to the US “family farm” as model, such that any practice that seems to alienate farmers from inter-generational investment in land is seen as “capitalist” while “staying with the family farm” is scene as something else? There’s a whole paper that could be written here (maybe you’re working on it already?) about kinship, alienation and the financialization of agriculture.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: I deleted this specific phrase and need to re-think it - but yes this is a whole paper! I have written about this financialization in Economic Anthropology and argue that it financializes land (as many others write) but also financializes social relations and values of farming. I dropped in a reference for readers to pursue.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: What's the mechanism of "dispossession" here? And what do you mean by "unattached"? The dispossession suggests a strong appropriation by absentee farmers (hence a legal attachment that is stronger than that of previous owners) even if they are physically distanced from the land. Absenteeism or speculation might be better than "unattached"? Perhaps this gets at another theme of the paper I’d like to hear more about: alienation. Although it’s a central theme, it’s mostly evoked, and I’d love to hear more about how you understand the relations between the alienation of land through dispossession, the financialization and deterritorialization of farming, the inter-generational identity issues, the commodification of work…
KH
Kregg Hetherington: Maybe here would be a good place to say what you mean by the "plantation model," since it needs to be far-reaching in relation to labour for this analysis to work. You say there needs to be a "somewhat fixed relationship" but does this include everything from slavery to flexible day-labour? There's also a little bit of confusion here, since you say later that some kinds of workers in fact come from local communities. It would be good to be a bit more precise about the three-tiered system (owner-manager-worker) in the terminology throughout. (In places, there's some slippage between "worker" and "manager" and in other places between "manager" and "owner," which is of course understandable, but could use some clarification.)
KH
Kregg Hetherington: I think the analytic mostly obscures the profound differences between agrarian labour forms. As I argued in The Government of Beans, the replacement of workers with machines, pesticides and biotech that characterize the second half of the 20th century has radical consequences for agrarian biopolitics. In Brazil, which was nationally organized around plantation slavery, I think it’s consequential for a discussion of race and labour and local resistance that so few bodies need to be harnessed to grow soybeans, that discipline is achieved otherwise, and that the relationship between government and violence looks so different. Knowing the novel contours of the agribiopolitical assemblage of Cerrado soyfields would help to understand what draws US farmers here.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: This is a great point and I’ve tried to address in several places by specifying what this assemblage is meant to achieve with particular emphasis on mechanization and technology. The role of race in Western Bahia is particularly related to technology in that white Brazilians are recognized as experts (in tractor driving, agronomy, etc) and non-white Brazilians are suitable only for unskilled work in the fields and easily replaced by either expensive machinery or other workers.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: More specificity would be especially helpful around these sorts of statements. The image of the plantation is one that is very labour-heavy, while soy farms don't in fact have very large labour forces (per hectare), as you mention below. And what kind of labour is this? The farms I'm more familiar with in Paraguay have only a handful of unskilled workers, but also employ almost as many managers and technicians with agronomy degrees. You do clarify this a bit more later on, but it remains vague as to what sorts of numbers we're talking about. So while there is a stark, and racialized, divide in the workforce (even in Paraguay, where owners tend to be Brazilian, workers a mix of Brazilian and locals), the image conjured by the "plantation," of large, disciplined workforces similar to sugarcane or cotton, seems a bit out of place when looking at the barren landscapes of soy.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: I think this may be a major difference between Paraguayan soy farms and those in Western Bahia, and perhaps that difference is due to the presence of cotton in the crop rotations in Western Bahia. While these farms did depend on teams of agronomists, tractor drivers, and accountants, the majority of employees were manual laborers. I haven’t done so yet, but it might be that I need to bring cotton into this discussion to make better sense of labor in this piece. For now, I have added a sentence about the general make up of the work force without being overly specific.
KH
Kregg Hetherington: As you know, I just wrote a book about soybeans in the Anthropocene, in which I made a very different terminological choice, so many of my comments will be about the conversation between your work and mine, and the differences between the analytic choices we made. I've resisted calling these farms "plantations" because I worry that it confuses the way racialized labour works on them, and I decided instead to think of the role of monocrops in the Anthropocene (I used the phrase "the age of monocrops") as a specific kind of assemblage of plants, capital, labour and other critters. So what really interests me here is to see what calling these things plantations allows us to see. I think you do a great job throughout this of drawing out the analogy, but for it to answer my concerns, I think it might need some more attention to the specificities of the assemblage in question and the way it diverges from what classically comes to mind. If for instance, a Cerrado soy farm looks more like 21st-century Iowa than like 17th-century Caribbean, then I'd like to see a bit more exploration of why the word "plantation" feels like the appropriate vessel for understanding labour relations here.
AO
Andrew Ofstehage: Thank you Kregg, I’ve also been thinking about these questions a lot and it’s been a challenge to put into writing. I have taken your lead in writing of the flexible farm as a genealogical descendent of both the Brazilian sugarcane plantation and the Iowa family farm and tried to reframe this as a comparison between these farms and the plantation throughout without calling them plantations. In short, I don’t think they’re plantations, but they’re more like plantations that Iowan family farms are; and thinking about them as plantations helps us center labor, race, and class in a way that is helpful.