Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation




College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Jennifer Reynolds


This dissertation explores the complex relationships between people, technologies, and ecologies involved in natural resource conservation and industrial agriculture in Iowa. Specifically I focus on the various efforts to address water pollution affected primarily by agriculture in the state. Using a theoretical framework informed by political ecology, Science and Technology Studies (STS), and posthumanist theory, I draw on thirteen months of ethnographic fieldwork to discuss what makes conservation culturally salient and practically difficult to achieve. This difficulty around conservation arises in part from the tensions between what I describe as the corn assemblage and the prairie assemblage. I identify these assemblages as analytically useful categories due to the synergy of similar desires and practices of various actors in the Iowa landscape. The idea of separate but co-constituting assemblages clarified as Iowans debated the efficacy of regulatory versus voluntary approaches to conservation goals. This debate intensified in large part due to a lawsuit begun by Des Moines Water Works, the state capital’s drinking water utility, that cited agricultural drainage systems as sources of pollution. The lawsuit followed the collaboration around the state-led Nutrient Reduction Strategy, designed to recommend practices that reduce nitrogen and phosphorous into local waterways.

The people, ecologies, and technologies comprising the corn and prairie assemblages work for and toward the idea of conservation (i.e. a boundary object), the vagueness of which allows individuals and groups with different motivations to work together without consensus. Although the desires of the corn assemblage and the prairie assemblage—farm continuity and landscape revitalization respectively—are often depicted as at odds with each other, certain actors in Iowa worked to bridge these desires to create a more lively and livable landscape. I discuss the tensions and collaborations on the landscape through ethnographic and material descriptions of scale-making through watersheds and farm acreages as well as corn and soybean agriculture, waterways and drainage tile, and the conservation practice of planting cover crops. I also discuss how variation occurred with corn agriculture and simplification occurred within natural resource conservation in order to question traditional depictions of industrial agriculture and conservation work. Then I discuss how farmers and conservation experts—as actors within my assemblage analytic—positioned themselves in relationship to voluntary and regulatory approaches to the conservation boundary object and their particular desires for the Iowa landscape.

However, the circulation of (scientific) knowledge by local news media and farm advocacy sources complicated conservation work, as actors within and between the assemblages negotiated blame, accountability, and ultimately, responsibility for environmental degradation. I demonstrate this negotiation through an analysis of media sources’ two diverging narratives of the natural nitrogen cycle, one which located the rich, fertile Iowa soils as the polluter and the other narrative which focused on human activity, or the absence of year round and active plant roots. Many Iowans dismissed and obscured the role of science and scientific knowledge in everyday and state-level politics, instead insisting their knowledge was neutral and unbiased. Obscuring the political consequences of science contributed to the limited efficacy of efforts among actors in the prairie assemblage to bridge landscape revitalization and farm continuity. Strategies like promotion of soil health, collecting water quality data, and developing technology for conservation all operate on the premise that knowledge empowers changes in behavior and action, while my research suggested farmers and landowners felt overburdened with information and were therefore selective in their consumption of circulating information. I conclude that multiple actors and groups—in farming and natural resource conservation—maintain and sustain the current industrial agricultural system, which contributes to ecological and social degradation, through extensive material and ideological work. However, this system requires so much work that has been naturalized but still has failures and gaps. I end with a consideration of how Iowans and I imagined the future of Iowa’s landscape as well as why approaching Iowa relationally and complexly matters.


© 2018, Brianna Farber

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