The “Darwinian” struggle for agricultural mobility rewrites landscapes in its wake.
By Zach Mortice
Over the course of two years, the Spanish architect Jose Ahedo visited livestock farming landscapes in eight countries: Mongolia, China, Paraguay, Germany, India, Bolivia, New Zealand, and the Azores Islands in Portugal. He traveled 90,000 miles by plane, 9,000 miles by car, 23 miles by boat, nine miles by horse and camel, and—most excruciatingly for a vertigo sufferer like Ahedo—56 miles by hot air balloon. Documented through his photography and funded by a $100,000 Harvard Graduate School of Design Wheelwright Prize Fellowship, his travels kept him on the move for 103,000 miles.
Ahedo selected these disparate locations so that he could witness the extreme “asymmetry,” he says, in how cultures in different places with different levels of development produce livestock. “You have people that move on horses, and people that move in helicopters,” he says.
And those are just two of the ways livestock farmers use mobility to make their living. A strong subtheme of his research is the multitude of ways farmers move themselves and their livestock. They establish circulation patterns every bit as attuned to their local ecological economy as the migratory habits of an animal. Each of these mobility patterns has intense landscape ramifications, whether it’s the floating aquaculture villages of southern China that require regular commutes between sea and land, or the movement of traditional Mongolian herders who range over vast distances on horseback and motorbike. In New Zealand farms, nearly every plant and animal was imported from continents away, while in the Azores Islands, tiny mountainous dairy plots make milking a movable feast. Of all this movement, Ahedo says, “It’s something that you need to do in order to survive. It’s very Darwinian. You move or you die.”
Ahedo’s research, presented at Harvard as “Domesticated Grounds: Design and Domesticity Within Animal Farming Systems,” confronts bizarrely opposed, parallel tracks of contemporary agriculture: the increasing depersonalization and mechanization of food production versus the trendy cache of small-scale urban farming. During his Wheelwright presentation, Ahedo detailed plans for mega-scaled Saudi Arabian-owned farms that grow alfalfa in South America that’s then shipped to dairy cow farms in Africa, which produce milk for the Middle East. It’s transnational farming delocated from any local understanding of native ecologies, and it is its own unique species of migratory farming. On the other hand, there’s the cilantro in your taco that came from an ultra-localized small-scale farm (say, a plot of land near a long-stigmatized former public housing project), held up as a morally righteous way to bring the production of food in line with human habitation.
“Domesticated Grounds” largely dismisses contemporary, Western models of urban farming as romanticized, symbolic acts that are more testimonials to evolved taste than practical ways to feed the growing billions. But Ahedo uncovered many ways livestock is integrated with denser human habitation across the world. “In 1903, there [were] 200,000 horses in New York,” says Ahedo. “There were half a million cattle in London. That’s not a [long time] ago.” The expulsion of livestock from cities “eradicated much of what we knew about food,” Ahedo says. And the parallel technological homogenization of farming divorced it from local culture, and not just vernacular traditions. “It’s also building systems, and how you situate yourself in the landscape,” he says. “Within that culture, there’s a lot of landscape architecture, landscape management, and architecture that’s been lost.”
As expressive as his photography is, Ahedo’s research so far has been purely documentary. But his eventual goal is to better integrate animal livestock landscapes with human habitation and cultures, and he’ll be working on a book or exhibition to articulate this ambition. Back in Spain, Ahedo took some time to narrate the movement of people, livestock, and resources that feed the world, as seen through the lens of his camera.
Mongolia: Every yurt has a solar panel, and they charge a mobile phone and a TV. They move three or four times a year, from a summer [area] to a winter [area]. In the summer [area], there might be five or six areas they move to every three weeks. It depends on how much it rains and how quickly the grass grows. They can [pack up] in 45 minutes.
Everyone has these Chinese motorbikes. Most houses have one or two. They consume [very] little gas. It’s a replacement for the horse. They collect [livestock] at night, [traveling] 10 miles to get them to the yurt again to milk them.
Many people still use horses [for herding]. It’s also a national symbol. There’s a whole culture around horse races. They have two types of horses. One is the kind they ride, and there are others they use to milk. They make a lot of products from horse milk. The [races] are very high-stakes. The jockeys are 14- to 15-year-old kids, because they’re super small. Yaks are in the north, because they [deal better] with the temperature. It can be minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. In the south there are more camels. All over Mongolia you have sheep, goats, and horses.
Azores Islands: Dairy farming is a new economy for the Azores. They were mainly focused on orange production. But they had a pest, and it killed all the orange trees, so they established dairy farming 100 years ago. That means you have to adapt territory that’s already being used for a productive system to a completely different system. The land has so many slopes that it has been divided into thousands of microplots that are owned by farmers. There’s no way big companies can get to the Azores and establish themselves because they’d have to buy thousands of microplots.
Thirty to 50 cows is considered an average size farm. They probably have [plots that are] 5 to 10 hectares. One owner owns three or four plots, and they have to move [between] them. Every farmer owns a mobile milking parlor. The cows and milking machines stay in a plot until the cows have eaten all the grass, and then the animals are moved with the milking parlor to another plot. They milk twice a day, and then they take the milk to collection [depots]. You might have 50 farmers going there twice a day to drop the milk [off.] There are pickups going everywhere. Then [the milk] goes to a processing plant. There are three or four on the island. They sell the milk in Portugal and Europe.
After each milking, all the machines [are] closed as a security measure. They leave the machines closed with a quite aggressive dog to protect them.
China: There are two types of fish farming. The first one is a pond style, where you modify the landscape, put the fish in, and have a pump that moves the water. It’s a very aggressive landscape intervention, because they may change the path of the river to accommodate it. They usually do it in a bay where they’re protected from tides.
The other type is houses on top of a huge raft. These [houses] don’t move. They have a wooden grid that stabilizes [them.] They use little boats to take to market and sell the fish. [This kind of farming] is declining, and they’re moving inland. [They grow] crab, tilapia, and mussels.
This is a private company. They have two security cameras on top of the house. These women were feeding clams.
The more informal, family-based farms sell in markets right on the coast. The pond [farms] are more industrial, and [the houseboats] are more informal family-based operations. [Aquaculture farmers here] used to spend 100 percent of their time [on water], but now it’s maybe 70 percent. It’s becoming more that you go to work, and then go back to live inland, but there [are] a lot of people also living on the water full-time.
In Hainan, there’s been a lot of tourist development. It’s an island that has very good weather and nice beaches. It’s like Florida-style tourism. Aquaculture used to be the biggest economy, but right now tourism is growing like crazy.
New Zealand: New Zealand is probably one of the most productive farming places in the world. I focused on a place called Canterbury Plains and Invercargill. I met professor Steve Wratten from Lincoln University. He’s an ecologist and an expert in biological services. He told me that in all of this landscape, there’s only 0.5 percent native species. All the insects, plants, [and] mammals were not in New Zealand 200 years ago. What this means is that this is probably the ultimate domestic landscape, where you build the whole thing from scratch, from bits and pieces brought from all over the world. So in the end this is a 99 percent synthetic, artificial landscape.
The main [industry is] dairy farms. When you get [up into] mountains, there are more sheep operations. They do deer farming to sell [antler] velvet and horns for traditional Asian medicine.
All the tall hedge plants are imported from California. They’re called Monterey pine, and they’re windbreaks. The sheep are from England and Spain. The dairy cows are from Holland and Germany: Holstein cows. They’re also farming with llamas and alpacas.