Gardens and the (Re)makings of Pericapitalism for Collective Survival

Photo by on

Sophie D’Anieri

Just Food Conference Proceedings 2021

When I asked Antonio if it was possible to find food in Wisconsin that tasted as it did at home in Veracruz, he told me that yes, it was possible—but he, along with other farmworkers, had to grow it themselves. [1] Antonio has been working on the same dairy farm in Wisconsin for eight years. He migrated due to the lack of job opportunities in his hometown and sends money there each month to his wife and their two kids.

Years before Antonio arrived at this farm, another farmworker had bought tomato and pepper seeds, borrowed his boss’s tractor to plow a plot, spread cow manure as fertilizer and started planting. The garden has since been kept up by other farmworkers. On top of long workdays and 90-hour weeks, Antonio and his coworkers share the gardening work, each checking in regularly to water, weed, or harvest. The garden supplies the entirety of their produce with enough left over to share. “Anyone can eat from this garden,” Antonio told me. “We never run out.” And most importantly to Antonio, their produce has “almost the same flavor” as the tomatoes, peppers, and other vegetables at home in Mexico.

At the 2021 Just Food conference, I presented a virtual ethnography of Mexican farmworkers in southwest Wisconsin, based on research conducted for my Master’s thesis. Through this project, I explored the specific ways that Mexican migrants in Wisconsin dairies negotiate relationships to food, principally through practices of cooking and gardening, to make an undocumented, diasporic life livable. These gardens illuminate farmworkers’ strategies of care, mutual aid, and world-making by which they navigate the late neoliberal era, defined primarily by the post-NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) dissolution of rural Mexican livelihoods that shepherded millions of displaced farmers into the United States’ oppressive industrial agricultural system.

Another farmworker, Ana, also grows her own food. [2] She’s been working on dairies for ten years and lives with her husband, brother, and son. Like Antonio, she grows food for better flavor, taste, and quality — although financial savings also play a large role. She raises chickens and their eggs for the same reasons, and says they taste even better than the organic eggs that she was rarely able to buy from the supermarket.

Gardening and tending to chickens keeps Ana busy. When I asked her when she finds the time, she said, “in the morning my husband comes home [from the night shift] at 9 or 10 am. I wait with breakfast — we eat, and then we go to the garden.” The time they spend in the garden each day varies; sometimes an hour, sometimes more. On occasion, Ana returns later in the day to check on the plants, prune leaves, or harvest food. Ana is perpetually tired; she hasn’t had a vacation in eight years. But even working upwards of 80-hour weeks, she gardens because she enjoys it. And by cutting down on purchased food, Ana hastens her return to her aging parents and close-knit extended family in Veracruz.

For both Ana and Antonio, gardens provide higher-quality food and decrease their dependence on an industrial food system. Gardens make their lives here, in Wisconsin, more livable, enjoyable, and fulfilling. Ana, Antonio, and other farmworkers I spoke with relayed working through worries and stress in the garden, the improvements to their health that gardens facilitated, along with a sense of community and self-fulfillment.

I conceptualize these gardens not as resistance to capitalist oppression, but as generative spaces within and beside capitalismwhat Anna Tsing calls pericapitalism.[3] The farmworkers I spoke to certainly respond to the oppressive forces that pervade their lives. However, in our conversations, farmworkers did not conceptualize their actions as resistance, but rather as constructive practices that enable strategies of livability. Attention to pericapitalist spaces complicates the oppression-resistance dichotomy that dominates narratives of migrant farmworker experiences in the United States.  

By understanding these gardens as pericapitalist spaces, we see that the food and labor produced in these farmworkers’ gardens and kitchens never enters the capitalist commodity chain. Vegetables grown in these gardens may encounter commodified food, like corn or rice, in the making of a meal, but they exist only beside other commodities within a capitalist system. The labor that produces this food isn’t bought or sold, and its fruits are consumed as a gift to the laborer themselves, to family, or community members. While it may appear that these practices marginally fortify an exploitative agricultural system by strengthening and enlivening the labor force that propels it, my interlocutors were still hurrying to return home. Gardens, for these farmworkers, do not eliminate the perils of capitalist oppression but rather provide spaces of temporary refuge and reprieve.

In considering these farmworkers’ gardens as generative spaces of care and refuge, I seek to conceptualize them, in Burnett and Gordon’s words, “as an expression of the vital relations holding together the worlds we are already in.”[4] For these farmworkers, gardening is a crucial strategy for enduring the prevailing crises of capitalism and a racialized agricultural system. Pericapitalist gardening illustrates that alternatives to or refuges from capitalism exist not in a futuristic utopia but within our contemporary world, essential to farmworkers’ daily survival and long-term flourishing.

[1] Name has been changed to protect the identity of my interlocutors.

[2] Name changed.

[3] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Mushroom At The End Of The World: on the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[4] Hannah Eisler Burnett and Talia R. Gordon, “Reimagining the Commons: Survival Ethics and Collective Endurance,” in Journal for the Anthropology of North America 24, no.1 (2021): 42-45.

Sophie D’Anieri graduated from the University of Chicago’s Masters of Social Studies Program in August 2021 with a concentration in Anthropology and a certificate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies. She holds a BA from Bard College in Environmental and Urban Studies. Her interests include food, agriculture, labor, and climate.