Caring for Agricultural Landscapes: An Interview with Emily Reisman

Photo by Emily Reisman.

This post builds on the research article “Plants, Pathogens, and the Politics of Care: Xylella fastidiosa and the Intra-active Breakdown of Mallorca’s Almond Ecology” by Emily Reisman, which was published in the August 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In this interview, Janita Van Dyk invites Emily Reisman to discuss the relationships between care, temporality, and agriculture in Mallorca. Reisman highlights how Mallorcan almond farmers respond to the problems posed by a pathogen affecting almond production, Xylella fastidiosa. By focussing on these problems as ones of care, or cuidado, Reisman draws on feminist studies of care and the more-than-human to discuss how people navigate the structural problems thrown into relief by epidemics and pathogens.

Janita Van Dyk: The “crisis” of almond production and the bacterial Xylella fastidiosa epidemic in Mallorca seems to be an unwelcome interruption to farmers’ attempts to maintain almond production. In your work, you illustrate how farmers face some tough decisions—to either live without almonds so as to eradicate the Xylella epidemic or to figure out a way to live with the epidemic. But at the same time as this “rapid” development, farmers coordinate with fascinating “slow” temporalities of landscapes and agriculture. I’m really interested to read more about how agricultural and landscape temporalities shaped or impeded farmers’ work and experiences producing almonds. What temporalities were important for them to pay attention to? How did you solicit reflections on this topic?

Emily Reisman: The way I see it farming of all kinds is inherently a dance with time. Orchestrating one’s activities with weather, ecological, and economic cycles from season to season and year to year are the nature of the work. In this particular case, I found Mallorcan almond farmers at a friction point between the temporalities of landscape care—annual cycles of observation, pruning, and harvesting nested within multi-year and multi-decadal processes of tree care—and the temporalities of agrarian decline. Tourism has quickly come to dominate Mallorcan life, reorienting seasonal temporalities of work toward serving visitors’ leisure and accelerating the pace of land-use changes. If a farmer thinks a landlord might sell off the land they have been cultivating or that their neighbor might convert their plot into a vacation rental, then the incentives for taking swift bold action to stem the spread of a bacterial disease that does not abide by property boundaries can feel futile. The farmers I spoke with also called out a friction between the temporality of their lived experience of the disease outbreak—extending for fifteen years or more—and the scientific and bureaucratic validation of its existence, which came just months prior. The tension between those conflicting temporalities of knowledge was mobilized by many as evidence of a failure in collective care. These dynamics readily emerged from my general inquiries into farmers’ individual histories with almond cultivation, orchard maintenance practices, and experiences of the Xylella outbreak.

JVD: In a similar vein, what makes temporality an important lens or orientation to understand the complex work of producing landscapes? What does it throw into relief differently than a spatial analysis?

ER: I think temporality helps to underscore the processes of landscape care that I highlight in the paper. Care as maintenance work cultivates particular spaces and ways of experiencing space without a doubt, but the forms of labor required are often deemed unremarkable because they occur in small increments over extended periods of time. The tendency to overlook or trivialize care practices can come from the way they exist temporally as the cumulative effect of micro-interactions. These practices seek to sustain, rather than alter, landscapes over time. Care as maintenance is inherently a temporal project.

JVD: One of my favorite elements of this piece is your interlocutors’ comparison of the governing or regulatory bodies’ investments and relationships to agriculture and farmers in Mallorca. This was between the fascist, albeit grassroots, model of the Servicio de Extensión Agraria (SEA) or Agricultural Extension Service, and the current EU-wide and characteristically bureaucratic Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Between these two models, I read through your work how moments of “pathogenic crisis” like Xylella throw into stark relief the limits of neoliberal agricultural production and make extremely apparent the absence or presence of institutional responsiveness.

How were you challenged by farmers’ assertion that the “old way” was the better way? How did you think through the speculative claims that farmers made about “what would have been”?

ER: Nostalgia for the Francoist era is an undercurrent of conservativism throughout Spain that has complex roots beyond what I had the opportunity to explore. In the case of the Servicio de Extension Agraria (SEA), I interpreted farmers’ explanation of past arrangements more as an engagement with present circumstances rather than a literal counter-factual prediction of how things would have been. No one really knows what would have happened if the SEA were still around, but there was a sense that the attentive ear of SEA agents and their intimacy with the daily challenges of farmers stood in stark contrast to the distance of current administrative structures. Nostalgia for the old way was less about how wonderful the SEA may have been in practice, it certainly had its flaws, but more a way to express the current experience of abandonment many felt.

The tendency to overlook or trivialize care practices can come from the way they exist temporally as the cumulative effect of micro-interactions. These practices seek to sustain, rather than alter, landscapes over time. Care as maintenance is inherently a temporal project.

JVD: As you were researching and writing this piece, how and to what extent did different definitions of care emerge from your research materials? And what first inspired you to think about the care you were seeing, reading, and hearing about as maintenance work?

ER: As I mention in the paper, I had been exposed to theories of care from feminist scholarship prior to my fieldwork, but I revisited them and deepened my engagement with this body of theory after hearing the term cuidado referenced relentlessly in conversations with farmers, agronomists, bureaucrats, and others. I became particularly enthralled with María Puig de la Bellacasa’s (2017) book Matters of Carewhich had just come out—because it made two important moves: bringing feminist theories of care more closely into conversation with science and technology studies and arguing for a more expansive notion of care encompassing more-than-human relations. Feminist theory has long emphasized the unrecognized labors on which social reproduction depends, as well as the way that labor, which sustains (rather than disrupts), becomes feminized and devalued. I found Puig de la Bellacasa’s case for applying a similar “care as maintenance” logic to more-than-human sociality compelling and this paper is an attempt to explore how it plays out empirically.

JVD: There’s a lesson in your piece about how “pathogens,” or even arguably viruses, are intrinsic or “intra-active” to cultural and political settings, demonstrating “that our relations bring a pathogen into being, no matter where on the globe it may originate” (Reisman 2021, 420). What makes microbes like Xylella and their multispecies relations so interesting to think through social relations?

ER: Pathogen, like pest or weed, is a relative term. It garners meaning from a context in which an organism becomes undesirable. Along with other scholars of more-than-human sociality, I’m more interested in pathogenic conditions than the pathogen itself. What are the circumstances that make a virus or bacterium or insect (or their interactions) take on the destabilizing role of a pathogen? I’m not particularly interested in the charisma of the microbial, but rather the way in which a disease event brings to light the inseverable interdependencies of social life. Xylella as a bacterium is not my object of study, the phenomenon of pathogenicity is. In fact, focusing on discrete organisms, such as the bacterium or its insect vector or its plant host, can potentially distract from the contextual dimensions facilitating their interactions. Epidemiological framings often focus on the geography of disease, tracing its origins and spread, which is crucial work, no doubt. But my analysis of Xylella led me to the conclusion that thinking in terms of unidirectional links in a chain of causation was quite limiting when it came to addressing disease emergence and virulence. Historically produced social relations make a major difference. The presumed novelty of a rapidly proliferating pathogen can mask the underlying structural features which enable its virulence. I think COVID-19 has made this abundantly clear.

JVD: What's next for you as a scholar and researcher?

ER: While care and pathogenicity became central themes of my work in Spain, I’ll admit they were somewhat serendipitous. I did not embark on the research intending to study disease because I was unaware at the time that it would play such a dominant role in the lives of my interlocutors. My overarching goal is to explore the politics of knowledge in agriculture, delving into the intricacies of how plants are known not only in the context of disease but also plant-water-nutrient-pollinator relations. My time studying almond production in Spain was paired with a parallel investigation in California, and I’m continuing to write in ways that can use the contrast between these two sites to highlight the contingencies of knowing what plants need. Along the lines of knowledge politics, my latest research digs into the surge of interest within Silicon Valley start-up technology culture to shape how food and farms are understood and optimized. I’m grateful to be doing this work as part of a collaboration with a brilliant group of colleagues through the Agri-Food Technology Project (AFTeR).


Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More Than Human Worlds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.