Performance in the Fields
Farming as Artistic Practice
The borders between farming and performance art are wonderfully blurry for me. Actually, I think we are better farmers when we approach agriculture through the arts because we can engage our work holistically where emotion, story, and people matter. Right now our entire grape harvest lies exposed on brown paper trays on the ground (about 30,000). Should a rain storm make its way to our farm in the next two weeks, we could lose our entire harvest—a year’s worth of sweat, of spiritual and material investment, will rot in less than an inch of rain. The drama of this moment isn’t from economics alone; it’s the wider story of the land and the community of people tied here that give significance to my life as a farmer. Every single bite of food carries a dramatic narrative of conflicting powers: weather, farmers, farm workers, social class, migration and borders, hope, and survival, to name a few. When we acknowledge these stories inherent in our food, we transform it from a commodity into something more. And that something more for me is part of my artistic practice on the land.
The act of farming itself is a performance. To be sure, the definition of performance is a highly contested one. Yet I think a beginning framework of seeing performance as “embodied acts, in specific sites, witnessed by others… [and] …a thing done, the completed event” deeply resonates with farming. 
Farming is clearly site specific; the unique contours and characteristics of the land shape how we farm and work. Farming, especially on our organic small-scale farm, is also a practice of the body. To pick a row of grapes, you must use embodied memory. You can start with what you see—cutting bunches from the canes with the flick of a small curved knife in one hand. But soon, in order to keep a pace, the hands must find and slice each bunch, however twisted in the canes, without depending solely on sight. (As a novice, I have cut my fingers many times.) The experienced picker works by touch and nonvisual perception, knowing where the body is in relationship to the knife and each bunch of grapes. Picking grapes is an example of embodied farm knowledge, a dance in the fields; we pick by memory, observation, rhythm, desire. Knowing how to farm is a matter of doing in relation to the specific context of the land, and doing farm work is a question of embodied acts.
If farming is understood as performance, not only can we call attention to the wisdom, technique, and creativity of the people who do farm work, but we can also consider its audience. We often think of eaters as consumers—and they are to the extent that we literally consume food. Yet, in the world of increasingly big-and-bigger agriculture, consumption is measured in dollars and profits. We forget that eating is a sensory, embodied, and aesthetic experience.
What we create on our farm is far more than “product”—as we grow organic peaches, grapes, and nectarines, we worry about the embodied experiences of our will-be eaters. Our audience is always in our consciousness. We strive to grow nutritious food through ethical and sustainable methods that also result in pleasure. The moment of contact may not be visible—eaters rarely witness farm labor—yet the connection is there. Our daily performances on the farm result in an intimate audience experience: we can think of eating as embodied witnessing, albeit often nameless and unconscious. What we grow, what my hands cradle from the vine, becomes part of someone’s body.
If farming is understood as performance, not only can we call attention to the wisdom, technique, and creativity of the people who do farm work, but we can also consider its audience.
Thinking of farming as performance creates an opportunity to intervene in the invisibility that cuts through our food systems and through our geographic blind spots in art production. By recalling that food is performance, that people’s embodied acts create our food, I hope that we can open channels of witnessing and communication between producers and eaters. The performance is already underway, what happens if we, as eaters, start listening deeply? What if we, as farmers and farm workers, tell more of our stories? We might see our role in the drama of life and survival and realize that we are all tied to the sustainability of the earth and of each other.
I hope we would also see that rural landscapes are not lacking in artistic practice. While not all farming is rural, and farming is not ubiquitous in rural spaces, much of food is still produced in rural areas. Seeing farming as performance is just one starting place to validate and explore the creativity that is already alive in rural places. Let’s continue.
 Definition quoted from Elin Diamond’s introduction to “Performance and Cultural Politics” (Routledge, 1996).