Growing vegetables, making homes

Kerry Woodward
15 January 2024

Homes are made in more ways than one. They are made as entanglements of agencies that are both material and discursive: a bed, somewhere to cook, maybe some family members, hopefully a place where you might feel comfortable. Indeed, the phrase ‘to be at home’ refers to a sense of ease, or belonging. Homes are […]

Homes are made in more ways than one. They are made as entanglements of agencies that are both material and discursive: a bed, somewhere to cook, maybe some family members, hopefully a place where you might feel comfortable. Indeed, the phrase ‘to be at home’ refers to a sense of ease, or belonging. Homes are also made through everyday care work. Beds are made, meals cooked, clothes washed, bills paid, all to the best standard that people can manage. This double meaning of home-making (i.e. care work and sense of belonging) is useful territory for thinking about how the planet we inhabit is home to entangled more-than-human communities, and the caring practices we engage in to make homes.

While homes are made in many ways, all home-making involves collective care. Many of us are familiar with the North American use of home making to talk about the daily work undertaken mostly by women (and migrant women in particular as care work becomes increasingly commodified), to reproduce life. The role of non-humans in caring, whether they are beds, heart monitors or soils, has been increasingly acknowledged too. Together, humans and nonhuman earth-kin* make homes and care as part of life sustaining webs [* Karulkiyalu Country et al. (2021:216) use the term to account for everything they share Country with including ‘rocks, plants, waterways, animals, fire, weather, seasons, sun, moon, and stars’. Inspired by Val Plumwood’s notion of ‘Earth others’, but ‘earth-kin’ highlights connection rather than otherness.].

Earth-kin work to care for human lives, yet very often humans do not care for the lives of our earth kin. The area I work in, farming, is an illuminating example of this. Farming is often presented as a human activity, geared towards generating monetary incomes for farmers, agribusiness, investors, and tax for governments; while at the same time producing cheap calories for consumers. Yet, the food that ends up on our plates is produced through collective labour that can include humans, machines, tools, fungi, bacteria, insects, worms, water and sun. This labour can be seen as care work because it contributes to making human and earth-kin lives liveable.

Like home-making, growing food requires collective care. For a seed to grow to a marketable vegetable, soil needs to be prepared so it is a habitable and fertile place for a plant to flourish, plants need to be watered, they need protection from pathogens and pests, and their beds need to be weeded. The vegetables then need to be harvested and processed before being distributed to eaters. All of these tasks require contextualised knowledge and skills, and many farmers learn how to care for vegetables through practice. As farmers become more attuned to the needs of vegetables, they can offer better care.

As one farmer told me: ‘…you just learn how to look after [vegetables]. That’s actually just how you grow things. It’s like, oh, what soil do they like? What’s their soil temperature like? Can they handle this kind of soil? What little things do they want in the ground to help them grow better? What can you grow them next to so two things grow together better and pests don’t attack them? Because they’re companion plants. It’s literally just figuring out how to look after them. Yeah, like raising a kid or something.’

But what is the link between collective care, vegetable farming and making-homes? At first, it seems that farming can make it difficult for earth-kin to belong or to be at home. The widespread use of pesticides, herbicides, tilling, deforestation, and water pollution which are part of caring for human needs and desires make belonging very difficult, if not impossible, for many other beings. It is in making and caring for human livelihoods that we make others’ existence so difficult.

However, thought from another perspective we can also see that it is us humans (well, many of us) that are not at home on this planet, that do not belong. Human exceptionalism, the idea that humans are separate to and more important than all other beings and things on the planet, makes living and making a livelihood difficult for many of our earth-kin, but it is actually a barrier to humans’ sense of belonging. We know that humans are of this universe, we are made of the same stuff as mushrooms, trees, bees, and stars. But yet, we do not belong. We are not at home, because we see ourselves as separate.

In my work, I’m interested in uncovering the work, practices and knowledges that help to overcome the rift between humans and earth-kin, I believe that care offers possibilities to do just this. I witnessed the buds of bridging the gap between humans and earth-kin on a small-scale organic farm, where human farmers were recognising themselves in the soils and plants that they farm with. As one farmer I worked with put it: ‘when I sit here and reflect upon it, then yeah. Then I guess that it is like… in the crops or in the roots of the crops is somewhat us, meeting a lot of soil organisms’.

Growing vegetables facilitated the breakdown of human/earth-kin barriers, which in turn facilitated belonging by positioning humans back into the life sustaining webs that make our planet. In growing and caring for vegetables, human farmers built relationships and became entangled with the lives of earth-kin by being in touch with and being touched by them, by learning about the role of earth-kin in co-constituting habitats, and by being outside and affected by the climate and weather.

On this farm, homes were being made for more-than-human communities, it was not just a place for humans to dominate and extract what they wanted, thus a concern and care for earth-kin was on display. Significantly, the barrier that has been erected between humans and earth-kin was being taken down bit by bit. What was left in its wake was a recognition that we care for and make our lives together as an indivisible entanglement. Hopefully, the follow on is growing awareness of the ethics or politics of home-making.

Home-making is vital to shared existence on our increasingly degraded planet. Vegetable farming provides an illuminating example of a practice that can be both caring for planet and facilitate belonging. Going forward, we ought to encourage and celebrate practices that work to make shared more-than-human homes.

Cover image by the author. Published under creative commons license

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *