Intersectional sustainable crop science, and GIFs
December 12, 2018 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Dr. Sarah Taber is an aquaponics and agricultural consultant and food safety scientist, Doctor of Plant Medicine, Plant Protection and Integrated Pest Management, and science communicator who's attracted a Twitter following and is writing a book. Following the jump, a collection of links.

Also, Dr. Taber hosts the Farm to Taber podcast (feed) where she and guests discuss "sustainable farm and food strategies, and the humans behind them"; there's been one season of 10 regular episodes and one bonus Patreon-only episode so far. [Farm to Taber swag (Thread Reader)]

Taber explains: "My goal with this account is to beef up the "sustainable ag" info available for consumers w some science & general business mgmt info. The general public is incredibly frustrated with ag's slow rate of change. Someone should talk about the very real reasons change isn't instant....Some of the reasons won't reflect nicely on our ag institutions. Oh well. I'm not gonna tell folks it's all good, because it's not. We need to back up this "no BS" reputation by actually cutting the BS. If you feel weird about someone airing your dirty laundry, wash it." Also: "put info out there, see what kind of feedback it got, & thereby find out where the general knowledge level is at with ag these days". (Thread Reader)

On her past experiences: "here are my official rankings of Shittiest to Cushiest Farms Jobs That I Have Personally Experienced.... when I say 'picking berries in a greenhouse in England isn't hard work,' that's not me being an armchair quarterback." (Thread Reader)

Informative Twitter threads by @SarahTaber_bww, loosely grouped by topic:

On soil and ecologies: On specific plants and animals:
  • corn/maize: "Proving that a plant/plant symbiote is fixing [Nitrogen] is INCREDIBLY DIFFICULT." (Thread Reader) and more on crop research: "that's something that haunts crop scientists every day. we're gonna spend our whole lives fiddling w plants & never get anywhere close to as much action as these GENIUSES in ancient Mexico. and we just have to live with it" (Thread Reader)
  • draft horses: "Mules got a bad rap bc you can scare a horse into submission (you absolutely shouldn't do that. but it's possible). Folks got used to cruel, lazy horsemanship." plus plenty of photos of pretty horses (Thread Reader)
  • rice: "people depending on rice for all their protein are already in trouble bc RICE GOT BARELY ANY PROTEIN ALREADY" (Thread Reader)
  • wine grapes (Thread Reader) "lots of crops are way more profitable than wine grapes, for example say pears. IDK about you guys but I've never heard anyone contemplate buying a vacation estate in a renowned & prestigious pear region. And that right there's the power of marketing."
  • suberizing and sweet potatoes (Thread Reader)
  • rice paddies: "there's a way to automate almost everything. It's just a matter of whether it's seen as a viable place to put R&D money, which has a lot to do with the market aka how people think food is supposed to be grown." (Thread Reader)
On common misunderstandings about food/ag/econ: On "family farms": On organizing/politics, and sexism:
On being an ex-Mormon:

On food safety, regulations, testing, and management systems:
On management skills and the economics of agriculture in the US, and oppressions therein: On slavery, white supremacy, and ag history in the US: And, finally, on fireworks and PTSD: the sound profile of household fireworks differs significantly from the sound of artillery training. (Thread Reader)

Additional recordings and articles: ("intersectional sustainable crop science" in post title taken from her Patreon)
posted by brainwane (21 comments total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
jumpin jeebus on a hatstand this'll keep me busy past the new year and I haven't even finished the marvelous mrs. maisel yet
posted by conscious matter at 1:07 PM on December 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Oh god this is magnificent so much to read!
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 1:51 PM on December 12, 2018

Well done. I regularly track her threaded stories on Twitter, and was coming in to mention the recent NC election kerfluffle, only to find you covered it. A lot more here to catch up on!
posted by SoundInhabitant at 1:59 PM on December 12, 2018

Having followed Dr. Taber for awhile, I can say that she (A) really seems to know her shit, and (B) does not take any, from anyone. I have learned a ton from her posts.
posted by gwint at 2:05 PM on December 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this amazing compilation. I just discovered her last week on Twitter and am really interested in her perspective. I work in academia amidst a group of sustainable ag specialists, but as I'm a generalist I always want to be learning more about the food system.
posted by Numenius at 2:11 PM on December 12, 2018

Glad it's useful! When I want to read someone's old threads, I find it so difficult to dig through old tweets through the Twitter interface, so I thought this might be a useful resource to make and share.

It's been interesting seeing her gain more and more of a platform. I think her writing and speaking appeals to several audiences, such as:
  • people in the large worlds of ag and food -- workers, suppliers, consultants, researchers, regulators, distributors, sellers, some kinds of growers, etc. -- who don't often hear their viewpoint represented in coverage of "agriculture"
  • Southerners and people in rural areas, and other ex-Mormons, who, similarly, enjoy the representation
  • systems nerds, especially those who never thought to look at ag as a system to nerd out about
  • leftist folks who enjoy seeing a white Southern woman slam patriarchy, colonialism, and bougie myths about what sustainable foods look like (but nearly never ask her followers, at least followers who aren't farmers, to do anything in particular)
  • competence porn-seekers in general, especially thanks to "storytime from the farms I have audited" threads
  • to some extent, Just World Fallacy holders, since she frequently discusses how many problems in the sacred Small Family Farm (in the US) are the fault of entitled, complacent white gentry farmers
  • tech industry workers who enjoy a bit of tsundere from a witty person with blue-collar cred
  • feminists who enjoy seeing a confident woman speaking in public while performing dominance, and never performing that "show vulnerability, be apologetic" kind of femininity
  • environmentally concerned folks who are grateful to hear someone credibly say: you are not on the hook to help solve large ecological problems through ethical consumption choices
posted by brainwane at 2:19 PM on December 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

(I should unpack that Just World Fallacy thing a bit more -- I do not mean to accuse Taber of indulging in the Just World Fallacy, or to say that the problems in question aren't the fault of those white gentry farmers. I mean that the Just World Fallacy makes "these people caused their own suffering" stories more appealing to certain readers, whether those stories are true or not.)
posted by brainwane at 2:24 PM on December 12, 2018

This is fascinating. I feel like I should know her already. Thanks, brainwane.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:55 PM on December 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I don't know how I could possibly overstate how amazing this woman's thinking is -- four threads and I can feel the whole way I look at farming, farm animals and food plants shifting.

This may be too exciting for me to read much of at once. I am not joking; the thread on corn and nitrogen fixation is just stunning, not to mention the wonderfully illustrated discussion of horses, donkeys and mules as draft animals among other things:
One time we had to move cattle pen panels around in a paddock that contained both rodeo cutting horses & draft mules.

The horses bolted to the other end of the paddock & stared.
The draft mules watched us for a moment. Then they figured out "ok, we're moving panels," walked over, & started nudging the panels around with their noses.

We didn't ask them to do it. They just saw a thing happening & wanted to get in on it. ...
posted by jamjam at 8:15 PM on December 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Her wisdom, experience, and wit are off the charts. Outstanding post, brainwane!
posted by whuppy at 6:02 AM on December 13, 2018

(In retrospect I'd go back and revise another line of that comment, take out tsundere and replace it with "heckling"/"incisive criticism". Well, also I'd go fix a few little formatting issues in the post itself. But I was like "I've spent so long on this, I just want to post it now and be done!")

If you enjoy this post, I do suggest you check out her podcast -- "Grappling With Our Ghosts: The American Farm Legacy" in particular is quite relentless in trying to dispel myths about the history of "small family farms" in the US, and "The Thirteenth Amendment" is part memoir, part policy analysis regarding the use of convict labor and an agribusiness/carceral/immigrant-exploitation dynamic she observes.

Summing up a bunch of her POV: in response to "Why didn’t the Europeans bother to adapt?": "why bother when you have guns & a massive superiority complex"
posted by brainwane at 7:42 AM on December 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I mean that the Just World Fallacy makes "these people caused their own suffering" stories more appealing to certain readers,

I would say her viewpoint is considerably more nuanced than "These people caused their own suffering". A lot of what she dealing with as she says is long-term and widespread cultural issues. After all, the "family farm" myth has a huge amount of cultural inertia, farm postcodes are passed down vegetative, and the crappy worker wage situation of farming is a direct legacy of slavery.

She does have a take-no-prisoners attitude both toward greed and stupidity, abs her perspective stems from practicality, rather than ideology.

Also, she is a national treasure.
posted by happyroach at 10:35 AM on December 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thank you for this post. I had no awareness of her, and I am now planning time to dig in all of this
posted by motdiem2 at 10:51 PM on December 13, 2018

happyroach, I agree that it is not fair to boil her perspective down to only blaming the people suffering from the problems. However, I would say that sometimes she does blame those people for a big portion of their problems, e.g., "...rural areas' agency and role in their own economic problems. I saw the same every day in my work with farms, most of my colleagues still don't, I thought I was going crazy." So I feel like it's fair to note the temptation of the Just World Fallacy in learning about this dynamic. But yes, absolutely, she's big on pointing out systemic historical causes. Which is part of how, as I read it, she divides up her educator role (using Twitter and the podcast to dispel myths about food and ag) and her activist role (lots of local organizing/voter registration/similar work in North Carolina, and advising candidates on ag/energy policy -- in-person or in private, rather than publicly on social media).

I should have included a few more old threads in the lists above -- I'm not gonna keep adding updates for her new tweets, but these are fun or fascinating.

On "#locavore & foodie-ism as Trojan horses for bougie respectability politics" including an anecdote from working registration at an organic farming conference.

On how anti-Semitism harmed Germany's efforts during World War II: "Theoretical physics wasn't "real." To German scientists, knowledge came from experiments. Generally a solid approach. Except in modern physics, where we didn't have the tools to DO the experiments yet. So it was 100% math. Just pages and pages of equations. The German tech establishment went NOPE. They just... straight-up didn't have the math skills to read it. But they couldn't admit that. So instead of cope with their knowledge having limits, they just concluded that this stuff they couldn't understand was BS."

On the human trafficking history of orphan trains in the USA: 1, 2 (side note: I learned about orphan trains, and the history of legalized child abduction in the US, by reading The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction by Linda Gordon).

On queer identity and trans inclusion in Tahiti.

And here's her incomplete list of reasons less competent farm owners can hold on, in the US.
posted by brainwane at 9:05 AM on December 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I am a huge Sarah Taber fan and have learned so much from her. This post is amazing!

One area where I differ from her is her cynicism toward people who attend farmers markets and the "food movement" in general. She really tends to take the view that people who attend farmers markets and use other smaller food providers are doing it for status or with a misunderstanding of how safe the food in a regular grocery store is.

I think a lot of people buy from those sources (and similarly, people who buy exclusively organic) are doing it because there is very little mechanism to understand farm practices. When I go to Cub Foods, I have no way to find out which brand of potatoes is raised more sustainably than another. At the farmers market I could at least ask the farmer for more information. If you want to try to buy food that was raised responsibly, until recently there have been few resources to get that information. Now there are many more certifications to look for, but even that is pretty confusing.

So I guess I give consumers a certain amount of credit - I think they're going, "well I don't want to buy meat that came from an abused animal - how can I find out if that happened?" and then they buy something that says grassfed because that seems better than the alternative.

And I realize this part is a systems issue, but for me personally, I shop at a more expensive co-op rather than standard super market because I can actually get local food that way. It is ridiculous for me to buy beets from California in November, when I am in Minnesota.

I guess I am saying that I think in the absence of a food system people feel they can trust to behave responsibly, we tend to feel around for something that makes more sense than "buy whatever is cheapest and hope the farmers solve it".

Of course maybe I would feel differently if I had Sarah's background.
posted by Emmy Rae at 4:24 PM on December 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Emmy Rae, of course I can't speak for Taber, but I am inferring (especially from her answers to Alex Tepperman's questions in the "Refugees, farms, & bad decisions" episode of "Farm to Taber") that her response would be: if you are trying to shop in such a way as to put your consumer dollar towards more sustainable and responsible farming practices, then in general you should try to buy and eat a lot of vegetables, but even that is not going to move the needle in any particular way.

This is where I do find myself running up against an interesting sort of theory-of-change frustration. I often expect that a public intellectual who educates us about a problem is also going to advocate for mass action and particular policy changes, and if they're telling me that tactic x isn't going to work, then I expect they'll advise me that tactic y is better and I should do that. Taber is definitely in favor of specific policies and talks about them and works on them, e.g., preventing certain new frack gas pipelines, asking people to call their Senators about Kavanaugh and family separation at the border. But I think her theory of change regarding food sustainability does not include "I tell retail customers via Twitter/podcast what purchase/consumption choices would be optimal". I don't know who a good source for that kind of guidance would be, and I suspect Taber would advise me that it would be more productive to just buy USDA-regulated stuff at a supermarket channel that worrying energy into work that will make a political difference, whatever suits my particular abilities.

A few more threads from the past several months that I think are worth unearthing and that I ought to have caught in my original post:

On how "corporate farm" versus "family farm" is a perceptual category distinction that doesn't help people understand what kinds of farms are actually doing good work (and, relatedly, on California vegetable and fruit farming versus the rest of the US): "most of these well-run farms are 'corporate farms.' Some of them are literally just companies that farm, some of them are family farms that figured out nepotism kills profits and started acting professional. But overall, what I've seen tells me that farming is only successful when it works like a job." And: "Haha I hate it so much when ppl say 'corporate' as if it means anything. #1, if we're gonna accomplish anything in life, we gotta work together with other people, the lone wolf thing is a pipe dream. #2 a lot of ppl's hate on 'corps' comes from ... they require discipline [emoji of woman shrugging]" (the following conversation is interesting too.)

A single tweet, on colonization and "saving farms," that I found thought-provoking.

On "how to grow crops in a greenhouse/artificial lighting at epic scale... with special reference to leafy greens, culinary herbs, and that one other plant". Sample: "cognitive biases. We think 'Light from the sun is free!' & forget how much energy it takes to deal w the heat from that 'free' sun."

And: On staffing needs, how software/tech folks are misunderstanding "logistics and all the unsexy crap that makes good accessible food actually work." There's a bunch of different points here that tie together some of Taber's frequent peeves and talking points (including farmer's markets), so I'm quoting several excerpts:
tech co's still do dumb shit like putting out job ads for "expert grower/fix-it handyman/engineer/QA person/crew foreman/software coder," offer $50K/yr for a high-cost urban area, and then complain about how you can't find good help these days....

Harvest labor is the single biggest cost in farming- even high-tech operations!

Meanwhile most of the money in the food business is from postharvest handling- cooling, washing, packaging, distribution.

Yet these two areas are treated as afterthoughts.

Logistics rule: think in verbs, not nouns. Design buildings with TASKS in mind, not OBJECTS.

Corollary: learn to love negative space. Added value comes from workers & equipment doing tasks, not from filling up your floor space......

The sustainable food industry (yes. it's an industry) has the artisanal thing down cold. We're really, really good at making delicious sustainable niche treats for rich people.....

There's nothing inherently evil about large scale. It means you can get more people involved, which means more knowledge and care. Honestly I think that's kind of beautiful.

And I think just about everything that can be done by one lone person, farm & foodwise, has basically been done already. So if we want to move forward & keep growing, we have to figure out working in teams. And teams of teams.
posted by brainwane at 5:12 AM on December 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

Emmy Rae, of course I can't speak for Taber, but I am inferring (especially from her answers to Alex Tepperman's questions in the "Refugees, farms, & bad decisions" episode of "Farm to Taber") that her response would be: if you are trying to shop in such a way as to put your consumer dollar towards more sustainable and responsible farming practices, then in general you should try to buy and eat a lot of vegetables, but even that is not going to move the needle in any particular way.

Right, I've heard that episode. My point is that I think she gets peoples' motivation wrong. I think there are a lot of people that want to behave responsibly with their food choices and can't figure out how to do that except by using the routes of farmers market, buy local, etc. On a number of platforms she has made the point that people shop that way in an effort to gain status, and I disagree with her.

I mean, I don't shop at Amazon. I don't think Amazon has noticed my absence and I know they won't fix themselves on my account, but I don't have to feel guilty that I am a part of their abusive labor practices. I think a similar principal applies to many peoples' food choices.
posted by Emmy Rae at 7:10 AM on December 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Emmy Rae, thanks for your reply, and sorry for not replying to the heart of the matter in my earlier comment and instead straying onto a side point. I get what you're saying.
posted by brainwane at 8:13 AM on December 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think the problem as she would see it is the idea that there IS a simple easy way to behave responsibly. That putting the onus on the consumer does any damn good at all besides making the consumer feel good about themselves. It's like you're asking " what gas station should I go to to make myself feel like I'm doing my part?"

I think this is an example of how entrenched libertarianism is in our society- boiling down the idea of change and action to individual commercial choices. When the truth is that individual action, as Emmy Rae acknowledged, is generally ineffective except for one thing: making the individual consumer feel better about themselves. And are individuals who feel good about themselves really going to cause change?

You know what causes change? Legislation. Changes in laws. And what causes legislation? Lobbying, publicity and massive visible public action. You know what doesn't? Individuals deciding to shop at a given place. The politics of personal righteousness dont do much good, because they're ultimately selfish.

So yeah, I'm pretty sure she's not going to give mefite shoppers any sort of answer they want, because her concerns are orthogonal to what they want. As for my, my attitude is if you seriously, seriously want to make things better, go ahead and shop at Wallmart or wherever. Feel massively guilty about it. Then channel that guilt into phone calls to legislators, research into who's doing good political work, and send money accordingly.
posted by happyroach at 1:56 AM on December 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

One reason I buy local produce is that ours is mostly grown by locally settled refugees and I want to help them out and we live in a climate that supports year round produce production, both by temperature and water supply.

More fundamentally, I am less of a techno-optimist (or any other kind of optimist) than she is. I buy local produce because I am worried about general societal collapse and would like there to be some possibility of food still if that happens for whoever of my neighbors manages to survive.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:37 AM on December 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think this is an example of how entrenched libertarianism is in our society- boiling down the idea of change and action to individual commercial choices. When the truth is that individual action, as Emmy Rae acknowledged, is generally ineffective except for one thing: making the individual consumer feel better about themselves. And are individuals who feel good about themselves really going to cause change?

I think we can give people credit for trying to make the best choice available to them in a system over which they have very little control.

I mean, I've been politically active around farm policy for my whole adult life, and change is painfully slow. Meanwhile, because of widespread consumer choice AND systemic support, there is more seasonally/regionally appropriate food available to people in my city than there was 5 years ago. That change has happened much, much faster.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:16 AM on December 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

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