The Naturalization of Nature as Working

From the Series: The Naturalization of Work

Photo by College of DuPage Newsroom, licensed under CC BY SA.

On Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, reports the Burlington Free Press, “ninety organisms”—bovine and human—plus “countless microorganisms work together to make cheese.” Good cheese, at that. Jasper Hill, we learn, is a two-time Best of Show winner at the annual American Cheese Society competition. An indispensable part of cheesemaking success is credited here to the activities of microbes and ruminants “working” alongside humans.

What ideological work is accomplished when microbes and other nonhuman living things are celebrated as performing labor? Figuring microbial and ruminant activity as productive labor enhances the value—gustatory, economic, instrumental—of cheese, suggesting that artisanal cheese is as good to make as it is to eat. By association, the artisan labor of entrepreneurial humans is also naturalized.

Enlisted as microscopic laborers, bacteria and fungi are credited with helping to generate the gustatory value of cheese through a process I have heard cheesemakers call “turning sunlight into cheese.” Bacteria and molds break down proteins and sugars in milk, metabolic activity that releases flavor compounds originating in the hay and pasture grasses digested by ruminants. As one Vermont cheesemaker told me during my research for The Life of Cheese (Paxson 2013): “It’s the bacteria who do all the work of making the cheese. They make the flavor, they make the texture. All we have to do is not get in their way.” In this vein, raw-milk cheese is celebrated for having more complex flavors than its pasteurized-milk counterparts: a greater diversity of microorganisms suggests that more work is accomplished during maturation to release more flavor compounds.

Dairy animals, too, are depicted as farm laborers, tasked with processing grasses and twigs to produce milk. Mateo Kehler, who co-owns and operates Jasper Hill Farm with his brother, Andy, describes their cows as “our workers who harvest a piece of grass and bring it to the barn, where we relieve them of it” via milking machines. In his depiction, “good” milk—flavored by pastures, rich in butterfat, and free of pathogens—materially results from rotational grazing, hygienic milking, and careful animal husbandry. Yet milk is rhetorically produced as good when animal gestation, birthing, eating, rumination, digestion, and lactation are narrated as labor, since—in this Lockean view—labor is what produces value.

In calling attention to multispecies ecologies of production, cheesemakers convey humility and even awe in acknowledging the limits of their own control over the alchemy of cheesemaking. But metaphoric language about how nature works accomplishes more than this. By celebrating as naturally productive the biological agencies of animal and microbial worlds, artisan cheesemaking and marketing naturalize a labor theory of value—making it appear fundamental, inevitable, and even morally good (Yanagisako and Delaney 1995). Moreover, the qualities that make cheese good to eat are also suggested to make its methods of production ethically good to undertake.

In drawing an analogy between craft labor and the work of fermentation and ruminant digestion—such that each is said to “add value” to milk—cheesemakers legitimate their own entrepreneurial endeavor as part of a natural process. In an article for Diner Journal, Kehler (2010) elaborates his vision for Jasper Hill Farm and Cellars—the Cellars being a massive, underground expansion of the farm’s operation through which they ripen and colabel cheeses made on other regional dairy farms. Kehler argues that naturally aged cheese represents a viable alternative to depressed prices for commodity milk brought on by global trade (Vermont lost 309 dairy farms between 2004 and 2010: a 22.6 percent decline).

[Jasper Hill] is our response to globalization. It is in this spirit that we take cheese, a distillate of grass, the product of sunshine, and put it away, deep underground where it increases in value over time and becomes more delicious [thanks to hard-working microbes!]. . . . In an age of synthetic collateralized debt obligations and a virtual economy divorced from natural laws and limits, at a time when the extractive efficiency of capitalism and its compounding capacity to concentrate wealth threatens to collapse the planet’s natural systems, it is totally appropriate to remember that all capital originates with sunshine and soil.

In suggesting that farm-based ecologies of production are by nature productive of surplus value, Mateo figures craft dairying as a morally upright form of capitalism.

Biocapital initiatives, Stefan Helmreich (2007, 293) argues, are predicated on shared sentiment imagining that “biological process itself already constitutes a form of surplus value production.” Not incidentally, such sentiment among the marine biotech boosters whom Helmreich interviewed is accompanied by a depiction of marine microbes as “little laborers,” the “workhorses of the ocean.” Kehler’s move is similar: locating the gustatory distinctiveness of Jasper Hill cheese in material “aspects of our landscape” (grasses and microbes), he suggests that the uniqueness of its resulting value (i.e., the surplus value latent in flavor development) cannot be “co-opted and mass-produced on the far side.” That is, it cannot be replicated and undercut by larger economies of scale. Kehler claims a moral economy for cheese such as Jasper Hill’s, boxed in by the “natural laws and limits” of what a small parcel of land can be made to yield. Here, language around how nature works does ideological work to produce artisanal cheese as “good” food and to naturalize artisan manufacture as “good” capitalism.

Cows, goats, sheep, and microbes may contribute to the making of cheese, but that is not to say that they do so under conditions of their own choosing. It requires human investment in what Danielle DiNovelli-Lang and Karen Hébert call “ecological labor.” Meanwhile, when organic agencies are foregrounded in labor theories of value, the enabling and constraining forces of market demand, safety regulations, tax structures, and mortgage-holding banks are obscured. Ecologies of production include those forces as well. Nature does not naturally work.


Helmreich, Stefan. 2007. “Blue-Green Capital, Biotechnological Circulation, and an Oceanic Imaginary: A Critique of Biopolitical Economy.” BioSocieties 2, no. 3: 287–302.

Kehler, Mateo. 2010. “Banking on Sunshine.” Diner Journal 15: 8–10.

Paxson, Heather. 2013. The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Yanagisako, Sylvia, and Carol Delaney, eds. 1995. Naturalizing Power: Essays in Feminist Cultural Analysis. New York: Routledge.