Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Margiana Petersen-Rockney is a PhD candidate in U.C. Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. Her research is focused on climate, agriculture, and the power structures that inform rural responses to our changing world. In this interview, Petersen-Rockney and I discuss two of her projects, both of which began in Siskiyou County, California.
In her work on the social risks facing farmers who openly pursue climate-adaptation projects, and throughout another paper “Cannabis farmers or criminals?” (written with co-author Michael Polson), a major through line is the unkept promise of local control. In another project, she finds that local farm service providers benefit from their autonomy: instead of being given universalized talking points about anthropogenic climate change, these agencies are able to mold their messaging to the local audiences they know well – in hopes of reducing the social harms of adaptation for the farmers they interact with. But this autonomy also means that local institutions can avoid climate conversations altogether if forcing the topic seems too difficult. Faced with the same social pressures as farmers, farm service providers in Siskiyou County told Petersen-Rockney they had no intention of introducing information about climate change to their programming. In this way, local wisdom justifies harmful policies.
While studying the local government response to cannabis legalization in the same county, Petersen-Rockney and her co-author found that local government responses to change also proved regressive. Homegrown regulations led to a highly punitive and exclusionary landscape for marijuana cultivation, especially as new rules were enforced against Hmong-American farmers in the region. In the eyes of the county’s regulatory code, these newcomers to the county weren’t farmers at all. They were criminals.
While the Daily Yonder has covered countless instances of hyperlocal knowledge and governance changing the world for the better, this research shows that these forces are “not a silver bullet.” As far as I can tell, the actions of local democracy in a destabilized rural America will not follow any predictable blueprint.
We talk more about this problem, the limits of nonprofit work, and Petersen-Rockney’s time as a student-farmer at Brown, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Beginning with your upbringing on a goat farm in rural Massachusetts, can you walk me through your path into academia?
MPR: I was homeschooled until college, and I began my college education at my local community college. I went there for like a year and a half before going to Brown University, which was the closest school that I applied to. The farm that I grew up on was very close to the Rhode Island border in Massachusetts, so Providence was always the home city where many of the people who bought eggs and milk and other things from the farm were coming from.
DY: So were you commuting to college, even when you attended Brown?
MPR: No, I commuted when I was going to the community college, but at Brown I lived on campus for a year, and then my last two years, I lived off campus with friends, which was common. And then the summer of 2009, after my sophomore year, a friend and I got a grant from Brown, to do this research project and start a vegetable farm on my family’s land. My mom has been a full time farmer my whole life, but she is a dairy goat farmer primarily and raises some other livestock, like sheep and livestock guardian dogs which are a main source of income. We had a small subsistence garden growing up, but we didn’t raise fruits or vegetables for sale. So halfway through college, I started farming vegetables on old hay fields there. That really structured the next few years of my college experience, because I never took classes that met on Mondays or Fridays. I would choose my course schedule based on being able to spend a three or four day weekend farming. People often are like, “Well, that seems like a lot. How did you do that?” But it doesn’t seem that different to me than student athletes, you know, who spend a ton of time doing whatever sport they’re doing. For me that was farming. So I operated a vegetable CSA and the first year, I think we had 25 or 30 members. The next year, we had 60 families who were doing a CSA share for six months of the year. So we had a pretty long CSA, where people could come to the farm every week to pick up a box of produce, or we had some delivery sites in Providence. So farming and school really overlapped for me.
Also during that time, I really became embedded in the local beginning farmer community. I wasn’t alone — we were all kind of doing it on our own, reinventing the wheel. And there were a few moments of federal policy that were coming down the pipe that it felt like we needed to do some organizing around, like the Farm Bill and the Food Safety Modernization Act. That really galvanized us as a community and we started to do some grassroots organizing. We were asking, “How can we as relatively small-scale, direct-market farmers get involved in these policy conversations and make sure that regulations like the Food Safety Modernization Act have some sense of scale appropriateness so that they won’t just wipe out the small scale producers?” This is a theme that has run through my research.
Coming up to the present, something we’re finding now in this research with cannabis cultivators is that coming into the legal market, which has happened since Proposition 64 passed in 2016 here in California, we’re seeing a very rapid bifurcation of cannabis cultivation, just like we’ve seen in the rest of agriculture. The requirements for compliance with the licensing and permitting processes are so onerous that really only the largest firms can do that. So it’s cutting a lot of smaller scale producers and the people who’ve been involved in cultivating for a long time out of the market. So that’s just to say that I sort of became acquainted with the issue of agricultural regulation not being scale-appropriate, and small-scale farmers often not having a real voice in how those regulations are structured, way back in 2009.
Back then we also began organizing a group of beginning farmers originally around this policy work, but then we started to form a community socially and also realized there’s a lot of opportunity to reintroduce reciprocity. So we would hold various forms of informal and formal equipment exchanges and knowledge sharing sessions and things like that. Now, the Young Farmer Network has around 300 members. It’s still going, though I’m not involved any more in any sort of day-to-day way. After college, I worked in a few different nonprofits, mostly with recent immigrant and refugee farmers, like the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, which has one of the oldest incubator farms in the country, and also manages a network of incubator farms. Eventually, I became a little disillusioned with the nonprofit world that saw how the work we were trying to do was important, but it was often just a band-aid, and was not actually addressing the structural issues that farmers were facing. Offering a business planning course to new entry farmers, or new American farmers may be a little bit helpful, but it’s not actually addressing the fact that their land tenure is really insecure, or any of the other much deeper issues that are making farming difficult. That’s when I decided to think about going back to grad school.
In between there, I also worked at Harvard for a couple years, which was important financially for me. And then I began my Ph. D. program at Berkeley in 2016, which is when I stopped farming. So while I was working in the nonprofit world and at Harvard, I had scaled down the farm from a full-time 60 family CSA, which was the first four years, and then the next three years we only did like two acres and it was mostly garlic, and popcorn – crops that I could tend to a day a week or so, and I sold those wholesale.
DY: That all makes a lot of sense, that the structural issues within farming itself would lead you toward academia. But do you ever miss the tangibility of farming now? How do you scratch that itch now that you’re fully immersed in the academic sphere?
MPR: Yeah, I very much do. I miss it a lot. And I think I’m hopeful that someday I will be able to find balance – I feel like I swung very far from the tangible, which came along with very little capacity and time to work on the structural. It’s really hard to be farming all the time, and then have the energy to work on policy issues. Now, I feel like my work is really disconnected from the everyday. I try to make sure that my research program is grounded. Everybody says “I do policy-relevant research.” But I really do try to ensure that the research I’m doing is as tangible as possible. Terms like participatory-action research and community-engaged research are so popular right now, and I think they’re really important ideas, but they’re also really hard to do in graduate school because you’re transient. It’s hard to build those relationships and have true reciprocal exchanges with communities. But I think that there are ways to make one’s research – even if it’s a shortish-term project like a dissertation – informed by community needs. There are ways I’ve learned to work with advocates and activists and journalists, who are able to take the sort of academic timeline and compress it and help bring the less tangible work to communities sooner. So that has been really key like in my work with the Hmong farmers around cannabis issues, and policy and local control and inequities. I’ve formed some real relationships with journalists and lawyers who are working on cases, and those have been very fruitful in making the research more tangible.
DY: I want to focus on one part of that answer, which is what you were saying about how the timeline of grad school makes it hard to build truly local, rooted relationships with the communities you’re studying. In the two papers you sent me – one of which was about Hmong-American Cannabis farmers in Siskiyou County, California, and the other was about more traditional farmers in that county, and their views on climate change – did doing those separate projects in the same place create a stronger sense of rootedness? Were you thinking a lot about the relationship between the two different communities you were studying within the same county?
MPR: Yes, I was. And I guess I should say how it happened. When I came to grad school, I wanted to research climate change and look at how farmers were adapting to it. Part of this is because in my own community of farmers and as a farmer myself, there were some really impactful climatic events that occurred that we were grappling with, like really intense floods and hail storms in the middle of the summer. There were pests and diseases like late blight that for a season or two just wiped out all the tomatoes. That was a disease that hadn’t existed before in our region.
So I was interested in climate and its relationship to events like these. But what I learned going out into the field, is that farmers didn’t really want to talk about climate change. In fact, it’s pretty low down on the priority list. The droughts in California and wildfires are obviously climate related, and those are clearly impacting and complicating many anxieties that farmers and ranchers are already facing. But they’re not necessarily as pressing as market conditions, and consolidation. For example, in the beef industry, ranchers who I was working with work all year to sell their calves on a video auction, where they make 90% of their income in three minutes, and then they just get what they get.
So climate change was not at the top of anyone’s list of problems, basically, but farmers were very concerned with this new group of farmers in the area who were growing cannabis. That’s how my dissertation research on climate change led to this research on cannabis cultivation. I never set out thinking I was going to study cannabis and local government control, but that became such a big issue in the place I was doing research. The institutional actors there are sort of obsessed with it, so it felt like a really important thing to explore. There have been two lawsuits brought against the county government itself for racism in the way they have treated Hmong farmers who were growing cannabis. So sometimes with research, especially if it is ethnographic in nature at all, you have to go into a place with a little bit of an open mind. And try to understand what is important from people’s own perspectives and experiences, and let that guide where the research takes you.
In terms of how cannabis farmers and the ranchers are interacting, I think in a lot of these rural communities, there is sometimes this idea that local control is a silver bullet that can fix all our problems. If we give power to the people, then they can figure out what they need and that’ll be a good thing. But those uncritical calls for local autonomy can really retrench existing power relations. Not just in Siskiyou County, but in some other counties that we’re looking at across the state, “traditional” farmers and ranchers have a lot of power – they have a lot of cultural and social capital. So there may not be as many farmers and ranchers in these places as there once were, but the ones who are recognized as such have a lot of clout. So as water becomes a scarcer and scarcer resource, and a lot of these farmers – even traditional farmers and ranchers – have already had their water totally cut off, the need to create really strong boundaries around who gets to claim that identity of a farmer grows. I don’t want to downplay the extreme hardship they’re facing, but the clash over water inflames the need to keep farmers who are growing this other plant called cannabis out of that protected and politically powerful identity group. So that’s one way in a little bit of an abstract sense that I’ve seen this “traditional” farming-ranching community and the cannabis farmers interacting.
DY: What’s next for you, research-wise?
MPR: Now we’re working on this project looking across California at issues that arise out of this neo-prohibitionist approach to cannabis, where localities get to decide on non-agriculture designations for this one crop, so that its cultivators don’t count as farmers and sometimes even count as criminals. We’re looking at the equity outcomes of these bans, as well as the ways that environmental narratives and discourses are used to re-criminalize farmers. To give you one example, under Proposition 64, growing cannabis – which used to be a felony – became a misdemeanor in California. But since then local sheriffs and law enforcement have realized that the way to re-villainize people who grow this crop is to charge them with environmental crimes. If you violate fishing game code – for example, if there’s an illegal stream diversion or the presence of a pesticide that’s banned – you can charge someone with a felony. So we’re seeing an unlikely alliance between local law enforcement and fish and wildlife folks because it provides an opportunity to re-criminalize people who are growing this crop. So that’s just one example of the ways that I think environmental change concerns along with sort of enforcement-first approach to addressing changing rural landscapes is creating some real inequities. But there are many other things that I want to be working on around land access and generational change, as I mentioned, and how we have come to this place where conservation is considered a dirty word. There’s a lot of hurt and harm that has come out of things like the Endangered Species Act. I can’t tell you how often that is brought up as a big concern, even in this work on cannabis, but certainly in the work on water and climate. So there are several different projects that I’m moving forward with. I’m also, you know, hopefully trying to find a job at some point. So who knows what will happen.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.