Farming while confronting the other: The production and
maintenance of boundaries in the borderlands
Department of Sociology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Received 6 May 2014
Received in revised form
5 March 2015
Accepted 7 March 2015
Alternative food movement
The alternative food movement encounters many structural conditions as it strives toward more envi-
ronmentally sustainable and socially just agrifood systems. One of the greatest challenges the movement
faces is not turning its back on migrant farmworkers at the same time it creates and experiments with
alternative agricultural models. This article explains why there is a gap between an expressed concern
with the inequalities faced by migrant farmworkers and the actual advocacy practices necessary to
overcome them. To help tease apart the drivers maintaining this gap, I call attention to the social and
symbolic boundaries reproduced by a group of people farming organically in San Diego along the United
States/Mexico border. I ﬁnd that in the course of farming in the context of border politics, food activists
internalize a number of structural and ideological conditions producing a racialized agricultural political
economy, neoliberalism, and the security state. These include the hegemony of certain stereotypes of
migrant farmworkers and inherent notions of difference, the hegemony of militarized borders and
monitored immigrant bodies, and race and class privilege that manifests through idealizing nature and
farming. At the same time, I ﬁnd that these boundary maintenance practices are open to change, and call
attention to the ambiguity expressed by well-meaning organic farming activists as well as more resistant
©2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
San Diego is known as “America's Finest City,”replete with
popular images of bronzed bodies, surfers, and palm trees. Yet, this
ignores the contemporary historical geography of border politics,
social inequality, and the challenges brought by social movements.
As Miller (2003) argues, booster mythology historically conceals
the city's class and racial struggles (160). This article furthers efforts
to unearth the contradictory nature of such power dynamics. I use
the case of organic food activists farming on the San Diego side of
the United States/Mexico border to explain how and why well-
meaning people unwittingly reproduce racially stratiﬁed border
spaces and an agricultural economy predicated on migrant farm-
workers through boundary maintenance practices.
Many San Diego alternative food initiatives mirror calls for
scaling up local sustainable food production and consumption,
while simultaneously pushing out food that is deemed unsustain-
able (Johnston and Baker, 2005; Friedmann, 2007; Pollan, 2008).
Concern is directed primarily at the ecological destruction wrought
by the conventional agrifood system, with some attention paid to
the social consequences of diet related problems, and even less to
poor labor conditions. Therefore, advocacy aims to create shorter
agrifood supply chains at local levels based on the principles of
economic (e.g. few intermediaries and local money circulation),
geographic (e.g. fewer food miles), and social proximity (e.g. cele-
brating local food cultures and identities).
Relocalization initiatives often avoid other power relations and
their sociospatial expression in favor of fetishizing the local (Born
and Purcell, 2006; Hinrichs, 2000), which has the effect of ﬂat-
tening difference and reproducing social boundaries (DuPuis and
Goodman, 2005; Slocum, 2007; Guthman, 2008a; Alkon, 2012).
Perhaps this is unsurprising given the alternative food movement's
insistence on categorizations such as “good”and “bad”and
“organic”and “industrial”food, “local”and “global”, and “family
farm”and “corporate”. These binaries often go unquestioned in
local alternative food initiatives. Binary analysis also leads to pro-
ducing and maintaining social and symbolic boundaries, albeit
usually without an explicit desire to do so (Lamont and Moln
2002;Jones, 2009). Because this process operates through
E-mail address: email@example.com.
Then-mayor Pete Wilson coined this term in 1972.
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Journal of Rural Studies 39 (2015) 1e10
unreﬂexive language and organizational practice, as in the case of
maintaining boundaries between organic farming and migrant
farmworker justice, there is little to no questioning of the structural
conditions producing boundaries to begin with.
I use a case in San Diego's borderlands
to explain how activists
maintain boundaries that perpetuate racial inequality and farm-
worker exploitation in the process of pursuing food system change
goals. To draw out how boundaries are central to contradictions
within the alternative food movement I highlight historical and
contemporary examples of race relations in the San Diego/Tijuana
region, and the perceptions and struggles of food activists to
advocate on behalf of migrant farmworkers. Such an undertaking
expands a growing body of literature into the contradictions and
unintended consequences of alternative food movement activism
(McClintock, 2013; Sbicca, 2014) by enriching scholarship on
activist privilege and racialized representations of migrant farm-
workers (Slocum, 2007; Guthman, 2008a; Nelson, 2008;
Maldonado, 2009; Alkon, 2012; Harrison and Lloyd, 2013;
I argue that boundary maintenance practices emerge due to an
internalization of the structural and ideological conditions of a
racialized agricultural political economy, neoliberalism, and the
security state, which perpetuates a lack of attention to and limits
farmworker advocacy. At the outset, I explain the social boundaries
produced by the current agricultural political economy and immi-
gration regime. The article then proceeds thematically by illus-
trating different forms of boundary maintenance. When taken
together, these forms explain how racial inequality is reproduced in
San Diego's borderlands, as well as the challenges food activists face
advocating for farmworkers. Activists maintain boundaries by
internalizing 1) the hegemony of certain stereotypes of difference
in a racialized agricultural political economy; 2) the hegemony of
militarized borders and monitored immigrant bodies; and 3) race
and class privilege through idealizing nature and farming. Yet, I
offer cautiously hopeful signs for change at the end of the article, as
all hegemonies are subject to ﬁssure and transformation. This is
evidenced by some pockets of resistance and alternative imagi-
naries that push against the reproduction of inequalities in the
2. Boundary production and maintenance and the alternative
When many alternative food activists and organizations attend
to racial inequality it is often viewed as less important than
growing, distributing, and consuming more sustainable food.
Although food justice activists push the alternative food movement
to address historical trauma and institutionalized racism experi-
enced by indigenous groups and people of color (Alkon and
Norgaard, 2009; Sbicca, 2012), organizational commitment and
programming is sporadic (Gim
enez and Shattuck, 2011). While the
racialization of farmworkers takes place on conventional farms by
employers, white neighbors, and even labor unions (Mitchell, 1996;
Maldonado, 2009; Harrison and Lloyd, 2013), this can also arise on
organic and small family farms (Holmes, 2013;Gray, 2014). At the
same time, there is evidence that some activists ignore or view as
irrelevant local racial and ethnic history in the formation of alter-
native food systems and spaces (Slocum, 2007; Guthman, 2008a;
Alkon and Agyeman, 2011).
Following a recent article by Harrison and Lloyd (2013) in which
they seek to explain why dairy employers engage in practices that
lead to unequal outcomes in the workplace for migrant dairy
workers, I employ Lamont's (2000) relational approach to under-
standing boundary production and maintenance. Social boundaries
are maintained not only by what someone says about someone
else, but by how someone understands themselves in relation to
that other. This process does not take place in a social vacuum. To
explain, then, why well-meaning food activists fail to address racial
inequality and migrant farmworker exploitation, even when it is
highly visible, requires buffering this relational approach with
attention to the internalization of power relations.
Gramsci's (1971) notion of hegemony reminds us that different
class interests, such as large-scale growers, political elites, and
whites, can join in coercing or winning the consent of large seg-
ments of the public to its cultural, economic, or political agenda. As
a result, rationalizations of social boundaries spread through ofﬁ-
cial channels like the media or informally around the dinner table,
which become internalized as common sense (e.g. migrant labor
should be cheap), even by those who in other sectors of life disagree
with such interests (e.g. over biotechnology) (Hall, 1986). Yet, like
all hegemonies, the hegemony of various racial formations and
forms of racial rule is “tentative, incomplete, and “messy””, and
thus open to change (Omi and Winant, 1994: 68).
The production and maintenance of boundaries does not simply
result from lack of attention to race, but from the possessive in-
vestment in whiteness as a historical reality and racial formation
(Allen, 1997; Roediger, 1999; Lipsitz, 2006). In this way, white
privilege has an agentic force that not only beneﬁts whites as the
“normal”race, but is embedded in a system of white supremacy
that marks other races as different and inferior. Relatedly, with a
growing awareness of, and institutionalized commitment to di-
versity, people of color become the “other”, that is those whose race
is marked, for whom race relations matter, and who whites need to
learn to engage competently (Pease, 2010). In short, socially strat-
iﬁed spaces can be maintained when the language and categories
used to racialize others reﬂect the interests of dominant groups,
which in practice provide symbolic weight to social inequality.
One way whiteness operates in the AFM is through the act of
“doing good,”namely producing spaces such as farmers markets,
organic grocery stores, and nutrition education classes predicated
on health (Slocum, 2007). While the alternatives constitutive of
“white food space”are not inherently oppressive, they operate in
ways that challenge building greater solidarity with migrant and
foreign-born farmworkers faced with exploitative labor conditions.
A“white farm imaginary”can serve to normalize such conditions
for farmers market shoppers who see white vendors, but not low-
paid Latino/a farmworkers (Alkon and McCullen, 2011). A language
of “if they only knew”helps maintain these boundaries, which is
often used by farmers market and community supported agricul-
ture (CSA) managers to explain why people of color participate less
than whites (Guthman, 2008a). Such tropes offer colorblind uni-
versal explanations for structural inequalities, and they limit the
politics of the possible by ignoring the need to challenge white
There are additional, and usually intersecting structural forces
that inﬂuence the formation of boundaries by activists in their
quest to create alternative agrifood systems, namely political and
economic forces. For instance, racialization processes within agri-
culture historically serve to further capital accumulation and
colonial projects (Henderson, 1998; Ngai, 2004). Food activists’
language and practices, then, reveal more than how social bound-
aries along the lines of race, ethnicity, and nationality are main-
tained within the alternative food movement. Racialized language
and ideologies also expose the power of political and economic
My notion of borderlands is taken from Gupta and Ferguson (1992):“The term
does not indicate a ﬁxed topographical site between two other ﬁxed locales (na-
tions, societies, cultures), but an interstitial zone of displacement and deterritori-
alization that shapes the identity of the hybridized subject”(18).
J. Sbicca / Journal of Rural Studies 39 (2015) 1e102
structures to reproduce particular racialized social systems
(Bonilla-Silva, 1997), such as a racialized agricultural political
economy (Holmes, 2013). The intersecting power dynamics that
emerge from race and ethnicity, and nationality and state systems
inﬂuence alternative food initiatives.
Of central importance to this article is Lyon's (2007) notion of
the “surveillance society”in which technologies of control intersect
with other systems of power to normalize the monitoring and
regulation of people. Whether it is the monitoring of shopping
habits through credit card purchases, the corporate assemblage of
internet users search habits, or the collection by health care sys-
tems of medical conditions across populations, we live in a society
where surveillance is ubiquitous (Lyon, 2009). It is this very ubiq-
uity that masks the exclusionary nature of surveillance, and thus
how surveillance practices can be internalized to maintain
boundaries between social groups. The intersections that matter in
the borderlands of San Diego are the surveillance and military ca-
pacity of the state to control the ﬂow of racialized bodies in and out
of the US, which most viscerally harms migrant farmworkers, but at
the same time obstructs intervention by potential allies.
While historically variable, in the current borderland context,
food activists often perceive that it is easier to reproduce
consumerism than to combat labor exploitation, racial inequality,
and the surveillance society. In California, political elites historically
facilitated agribusiness interests and racist reactionary groups
seeking to rationalize migrant labor ﬂows as a means to quelling
farmworker unrest and maintaining the “ordered”aesthetic of farm
landscapes (Mitchell, 1996, 2012). The largely white Industrial
Workers of the World and the American Communist Party resisted
such practices and fought alongside Latino/a farmworkers in the
early 20th century to improve labor conditions. Also, many faith
groups and left causes worked with the United Farm Workers in the
late 20th century. However, with the roll back of state regulations
and social welfare protections and roll out of trade liberalization
and publiceprivate partnerships that began in the 1980s, there
emerged a growing social commitment to individual initiative and
market forces. Similarly, as organic agriculture spread in California,
food activists started to overlook farmworker justice in favor of
environmental sustainability and healthy eating (Allen et al., 2003;
Guthman, 2004). Such neoliberal subjectivities and ideologies
reﬂect consumer strategies that individualize social change, which
perpetuates class and racial privilege within the alternative food
movement (Guthman, 2008b). This may for instance locate the
solution to problems like farmworkers’food insecurity in choosing
to eat healthy instead of structural change (Minkoff-Zern, 2014).
For two and a half months, I participated with a group called
Mission Heritage Growers (MHG) as an intern on their six-acre
farm, Marsh Farm.
The non-proﬁt organization is dedicated to
educating the public on the importance of organic farming,
providing a space to learn how to farm organically and build
community, and improving ruraleurban community food net-
works. Their farm is in San Diego's South Bay, from which one can
see the US-Mexico border. For 20e40 h a week, I built compost,
formed rows, planted seeds, managed the nursery, watered plants,
pulled weeds, harvested crops, fed the chickens, prepared CSA
baskets, teas, and herbal tinctures, and attended weekly sustainable
farming workshops. In the process, I wrote extensive ﬁeldnotes
about the local ecological niche, farming practices, social symbols,
conversations, and non-verbal cues ﬂowing through Marsh Farm.
In addition, I collected 26 in-depth semi-structured interviews
from paid and non-paid staff, board members, interns, and key
I use pseudonyms and change certain iden-
tifying characteristics given the sensitive nature of the analysis that
follows. Interview questions pertinent to the analysis in this article
asked about 1) the importance of racial/ethnic issues in the work
they do; 2) their reactions to immigration and border politics as it
pertains to the local food system; 3) the degree to which such issues
should be integrated into their practices and; 4) their views on, and
experiences engaging, the local MexicaneAmerican community. I
also carried out content analysis of news coverage, non-proﬁt and
think tank reports, organizational documents, social media, and
websites pertaining to sustainable agriculture in San Diego.
I completed data analysis in the program NVivo 10. I ﬁrst per-
formed a text inquiry for all references to immigration, race/ethnic
relations, the border, notions of sustainability, practices at the farm,
and engagement with the local community. Although I began from
an a priori critical theoretical understanding of race/ethnic re-
lations within the alternative food movement, I inductively derived
themes from the results of the text inquiry. Themes most relevant
to this article include the racialization of migrant farmworkers,
grappling with the socioecological contradictions of borderlands,
internalizing military and surveillance logics, and afﬁrming race
and class privilege through sustainable farming. These themes
coupled with a reﬂection on key historical moments and the liter-
ature discussed above drive the following analysis.
4. Boundary production through a racialized agricultural
political economy and immigration regime
In this section, I outline the structural conditions of border
politics to explain how symbolic and social boundaries are pro-
duced in the ﬁrst place. A racialized immigration regime and
agricultural political economy is the context within which San
Diego food activists internalize the hegemony of this border reality.
As such, I discuss the relationship between the history of immi-
gration and agriculture in Southern California, explain the raciali-
zation of immigrants and farmworkers, and highlight the
expanding militarization and surveillance of this space.
Boundary producing actions occurred early in Southern Cal-
ifornia's history. The growth of agriculture in Southern California
was made possible after white farmers squatted on the large
ranches of elite Californios that were granted thousands of acres
from the Mexican government for military or public service (Pitt,
196 6). The Land Law of 1851, which was inﬂuenced by the Lock-
ean notion that property rights coincide with putting land into
productive use, helped justify white takeover of Mexican land
(Bokovoy, 1999). Agriculture quickly expanded throughout the
remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century, primarily
due to the expansion of citrus production predicated on a revolving
door of itinerant foreign born labor, most eventually from Mexico
Paradoxically, American territorial expansion into Mexico
required “imported colonialism”: immigration policy became a tool
to import needed labor, provide foreign workers with legal resi-
dency, and construct immigrants as a foreign race denied the
prospect of citizenship (Ngai, 2004). Indicative of this logic was the
Bracero Program, which included a series of laws and diplomatic
agreements between the US and Mexico from 1941 to 1964 that
imported temporary farmworkers to work on large agricultural
I changed the name of the organization and the farm.
Interview demographics: 54% female, 46% male; 73% white, 12% black, 12%
Latino/a, 3% Asian; 84% college degree; 7% some college; 7% high-school degree;
80% live in Central San Diego; 20% live in South San Diego.
J. Sbicca / Journal of Rural Studies 39 (2015) 1e10 3
estates. While the ﬂow of migrant farmworkers across the border is
maintained through legal tools such as the H-2A program (SPLC,
2013), boundary producing actions continue to racialize migrant
farmworkers (Maldonado, 2009; Holmes, 2013).
This context is relevant for San Diego County's organic agricul-
ture sector. Despite a thriving $30 million sector ethere are more
registered organic farms than any county in the US, producing over
125 different crops, although most acreage is dedicated to citrus e
San Diego's alternative food movement tends to overlook a number
of social boundaries. This is most clearly evidenced by two major
reports and assessments of San Diego's conventional and alterna-
tive agrifood systems, in which neither investigates how the po-
litical economy of migrant farmworkers impacts their future
sustainability (Ellsworth and Feenstra, 2010; SDFSWG, 2011).
reports overlook the racialized agricultural political economy and
immigration regime: most farmworkers speak Spanish and come
from Mexico, over 50% of which are likely undocumented (Mitchell,
1996; Aguirre, 2005; Nabhan et al., 2012). Moreover, there is heavy
reliance on this labor: as of 2007, the number of paid farmworkers
(21,114) doubled that of growers (Ellsworth and Feenstra, 2010).
These boundary producing processes are perhaps unsurprising
given some of the region's history. Racist language and policy is
central to restricting immigration from Mexico (Massey and
anchez, 2010), particularly the widespread “Latino threat narra-
tive”(Chavez, 2013). Illustrating this is the argument by former San
Diego Mayor, and former California Governor Pete Wilson that
“illegals”were receiving far too many state resources in the midst of
a Southern California recession (Nevins, 2002). He railed against
the Clinton administration's immigration policies and in 1994 came
out in support of Proposition 187, which restricted undocumented
immigrants from receiving public education, health care, and other
Even more recently, it is estimated that in San
Diego County 28% of undocumented workers are victims of traf-
ﬁcking, while 49% have experienced abusive labor practices (Zhang,
Racist narratives and abusive practices also intersect with the
surveillance power of the state. Partially responding to mounting
pressure from California politicians, but also due to rigidifying so-
cial perspectives on the U.S./Mexico border, the Clinton adminis-
tration passed Operation Gatekeeper (Nevins, 2002). This set off a
new round of militarizing and controlling the border through
enhancing the enforcement unit of the Immigration and Naturali-
zation Service and Border Patrol, primarily in San Diego. Such
processes intensiﬁed after 9/11, when “national security”became a
tool to advance more invasive and intensive security and surveil-
lance practices (Chavez, 2013). An “enforcement ﬁrst”strategy led
to border enforcement agencies receiving a massive increase in
funding to police borders and criminalize immigrant communities.
With the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, funding
for these agencies doubled from $6.2 billion to $12.5 billion be-
tween 2002 and 2006, and by 2012, the funding grew by another
43%. Speciﬁcally, border enforcement received the largest budget
increases in the last decade, resulting in roughly 3.5 million de-
portations (Meissner et al., 2013).
The following historical account is a prime example of the
boundaries produced by a racialized agricultural political economy
and militarized immigration regime. For a week, beginning on
October 21, 2007 some of the largest wild ﬁres in San Diego history
spread throughout the region. Although the mandatory
evacuations and disaster relief efforts were largely compassionate,
a racist undercurrent affected many undocumented farmworkers
and Latino/a residents. At Qualcomm Stadium, the main evacuation
center, Border Patrol received several calls to deport Latino/as for
allegedly stealing donated items. In addition, Border Patrol agents
created an intimidating atmosphere for many Latino/as, and police
ofﬁcers randomly demanded identiﬁcation to ensure that people
were from evacuation zones. If people could not produce identiﬁ-
cation, they were sometimes deported. Similar harassment and
intimidation occurred at the Del Mar Fairgrounds evacuation cen-
ter, where in addition, Spanish language resources and outreach
were unavailable (SDIRC et al., 2007).
Furthermore, many farmworkers in and around the canyons
deemed mandatory evacuation zones were not allowed to leave.
These people already live in some of the worst housing conditions
in greater San Diego. Larry, an organic farmer native to San Diego,
told me about the widespread terrible living conditions: “[T]he so-
called housing they provide, they say, ‘You can stay in that canyon
right there, and here are some blue tarps. Just don't burn the place
down when you cook all your food there in the canyon. Use the
bottom end of the canyon as your latrine.’”
Despite poor wages,
and poor access to food, clean water, and health care services,
farmworkers did not receive relief services (Martinez et al., 2009).
Even one of the oldest and well regarded organic farms, Be Wise
Ranch, kept workers out in the ﬁelds in order to save the strawberry
crop in hazardous air quality. Most farmworkers did not leave for
fear of losing their job or being stopped by Border Patrol during
evacuation (SDIRC et al., 2007).
These ﬁssures in the ediﬁce of “America's Finest City”are the
result of boundaries produced at the intersection of structural
racism, the surveillance power of the state, and systematic labor
exploitation. At MHG, a number of people recounted these stories
with shock and indignation that immigrants receive such treat-
ment. Not only does this disaster illustrate obvious boundary pro-
ducing mechanisms. It reveals the ideological hegemony of a
racialized agricultural political economy, border surveillance and
militarization that inﬁltrate the daily operations of Marsh Farm and
the perceptions of those farming on the border.
5. Boundary maintenance that reproduces racial inequality
and limits farmworker advocacy
The following section investigates how different forms of
boundary maintenance together explain why many of San Diego's
food activists are imbricated in the reproduction of borderland
racial inequality and the limiting of farmworker advocacy. The
analysis shows that food activists internalize elements of a racial-
ized agricultural political economy, a militarized border and state
surveillance apparatus, and neoliberalism. Although there is
sometimes ambiguity or concern with farmworkers' experiences in
San Diego's borderlands, there are still three patterns that maintain
boundaries: 1) racialized stereotypes and perceptions of farm-
workers; 2) no effective challenge to border militarization and
surveillance; and 3) the operation of race and class privilege
through idealizing nature and farming.
5.1. The hegemony of stereotypes of difference and farmworker as
Perceptions of other groups discursively and behaviorally
manifests in ways that can reproduce and enforce symbolic
The recommendations make a brief nod to advancing fairer wages in the food
system and a minor suggestion to support and strengthen training programs for
new, minority, and migrant farmers.
Proposition 187 was found unconstitutional by a federal court in 1999.
Such conditions are well documented (e.g. a documentary expose called The
Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon by John Carlos Frey).
J. Sbicca / Journal of Rural Studies 39 (2015) 1e104
boundaries and social inequality (Lamont, 2000). Below I investi-
gate how such perceptions stymie or facilitate the positive impacts
of a farm deemed a site for community building relevant to all San
Diegans. Speciﬁcally, there are a set of stereotypes that drive a
wedge between the alternative food movement and migrant
farmworkers. One of the core perceptions of those involved with
MHG is that because migrants face economic, political, and social
marginalization, their primary drive is survival. This operates
through and springs from a few key racialized boundaries. First,
exploitation of migrant farmworkers is presented as an intractable
problem. Second, farmworker exploitation is quasi-necessary
because of the perceived correlation between labor costs and
food costs. Third, foreign-born farmworkers take on difﬁcult work
that most Americans are unwilling to perform.
Within MHG and other local alternative food groups, the
exploitation of migrant farmworkers is seen as a problem with
historical foundations. As Karl, a local chef and volunteer with
Marsh Farm, put it, “We've always had an immigrant labor force …
whether it's from China or Mexico or anywhere else. It's always
driven our economy, all the way back to slavery …I don't want to
say that the way we're using the Mexican work force is slavery but
it kind of is.”Mentioning NAFTA, Casandra, a food activist in
another group contends, “[A] lot of American corporations wanted
to control and create conventional farming models for people that
would normally just have a family farm, who are now forced to be
food labor or just don't have any way to survive at all, so they're
coming here.”These macro-economic, -political and -social forces
are deemed too complicated for local intervention. As many in-
terviewees expressed, “Who's then going to do the grunt work?”
Despite knowing some of the drivers of migrant farmworker
exploitation, it becomes somewhat acceptable given its perceived
relationship to the cost of food. Expressing a common sentiment,
Larry argues that “[I]f we didn't have those workers here, our local
agriculture industry would come to a screeching halt and food
prices would skyrocket.”Ben, a neighboring farmer, also contends
that growers are not legally required to pay overtime to someone
working in agriculture up to sixty hours a week. Even though this
takes advantage of a largely migrant work force, often paid on a
piecework basis, “[I]f you did [pay overtime] these farms would go
broke …that's why the law is in place.”These economic justiﬁca-
tions intersect to naturalize the need for cheap food on the backs of
For small-scale growers in the organic sector, weak labor laws
may also contribute to keeping farms aﬂoat by allowing them to
deﬂate labor costs and turn a greater proﬁt through the valorization
of their organic products (Guthman, 2004). Yet, as Carol, a longtime
MHG leader expresses, there is uneasiness with the fact that
organic farms are “balancing it out with some of these equations.”
Referring to a neighboring farm, but without explicitly saying so,
she expresses how white guilt silences discussion of the intercon-
nectedness of race and economic relations: “Are we talking about
it? No …[T]hey feel that they can't even speak Spanish and want to
be respectful and are working with these people that they can't
communicate with, knowing all the dynamics and feeling uncom-
fortable about it all.”Even though some people understand the
problems, many other people maintain boundaries by justifying the
difﬁculties faced by small-scale organic farms competing in an
agricultural economy predicated on racialized cheap labor pools.
Labor exploitation is far from the aspirational ideal of many
organic growers. Yet, notwithstanding the helplessness felt by
some, there is regular boundary maintenance, particularly through
the racialized notion that farmworkers' marginalized status de-
termines their needs, which would be higher if they just wanted
more. An active unpaid staff member named Sarah reﬂects this
common stereotype, “[T]heir quality of life, where they come from,
people from Mexico, they have a lower quality, so they don't need
as much.”Such a perspective contradicts how corporate agribusi-
ness and politicians collude to draft laws that maintain low wages,
particularly through the racialization of immigrants (Mitchell,
1996; Henderson, 1998). Victim blaming also overlooks the class
struggle, both victories and losses, for California and San Diego
farmworkers (Miller, 2003; Mitchell, 2012).
Food activists' perception of migrant farmworkers relates to
their self-perception, which helps maintain symbolic boundaries.
On the one hand, there are comments by people such as Larry who
states that Mexicans “really need work and are offering to do it for a
much lower wage; they work really hard.”On the other hand, there
are racially coded beliefs that differentiate native-born San Diegans
as unwilling to perform farm work. Karl is skeptical whether people
from more privileged backgrounds are willing to take up farming
because, “[F]ood's already so expensive. [However] …if food gets
more expensive, then I deﬁnitely think we can afford to pay local
people to do it.”In essence, cheap migrant labor will become
disposable once people are willing to pay more for food. But it is the
very relationship between the perceived desire for cheap food and
the exploitation of “hard working”migrant farmworkers “willing”
to take poor pay that drives the internalization of racialized
There is also a whitewashed self-perception of “us, the good
small-scale organic farmers,”and “them, the bad corporate and
government elites.”Coupled with discomfort discussing the ra-
cialized political economy of organic farming, organic farmers
reinforce a colorblind analysis of the conditions of agricultural la-
bor. Mirroring similar perspectives, Fred, a board member believes,
“[P]eople want and are used to inexpensive food.”Yet this time, this
is used to explain the inability of small-scale farming operations
like Marsh Farm to provide fair wages when “big agri-business
utilizes people coming across the border.”While exceptional, Ben
contends, “[F]ood is cheap because we're subsidizing Archer Dan-
iels and Monsanto …we're allowing them to produce on large
scales [and] …organic has to pay extra.”In short, organic farmers
have no choice but to accept the differences between themselves
and a migrant work force.
At the same time these food activists maintain symbolic
boundaries through the reiﬁcation of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs,
which normalizes the plight of migrant farmworkers, neoliberal
market pressures and subjectivities of individuality and personal
responsibility justify inaction. A board member named Lynne rec-
ognizes that as individuals, people in MHG are economically stable,
but as an organization, “We're still struggling to make ends meet
every month. It's the same thing that the migrant workers are
facing …They can't be really thinking about too much more.”
Discursively bridging different experiences actually forecloses
building social solidarity and economic sustainability. The organi-
zation must fulﬁll basic needs before it can take on higher order
problems. In this way, the difﬁculties of working as a non-proﬁtina
context where ﬁnancial solvency means tapping into organic and
local food markets, or developing organizational funding streams,
are conﬂated with exploited farmworkers, but without advocacy on
5.2. The hegemony of militarized borders and monitored immigrant
One day at Marsh Farm, I witnessed the ambiguous experience
of farming close to the border. Interrupting a conversation, a Border
Patrol in an SUV drove up and asked, “Have you seen anyone run
through here?”We all responded, “No.”After he drove away, Harry,
an original member of MHG said, “This is the nature of working
right on the border. You have to defend ‘national security’”,ashe
J. Sbicca / Journal of Rural Studies 39 (2015) 1e10 5
made air quotes. He then pointed to the proximity of the border and
the large wall running eastewest along a mountain for as far as the
eye can see. Later in the morning, I mention what happened to
Akra, a part-time farmer at Marsh Farm. He saw the person in
question crossing the border and running through the farm. Upset
with the Border Patrol he said, “Those guys are assholes.”Another
part-time farmer named Clara agreed, “Fuck Border Patrol.”Akra
then noted that a few days prior he saw a fresh pair of clothes
behind some bushes left by someone to aid migrants; he often
makes an effort to leave out food. As we harvested tomatoes,
reﬂecting on the morning events, helicopters ﬂew overhead look-
ing for border crossers.
While animosity toward the Border Patrol and policies that
regulate immigrant mobility is common, ambiguity on how or
whether to work toward policy solutions and/or improve race re-
lations along the border predominates. One reason for the ambi-
guity is the lack of a structural analysis of the problem, which leads
to statements from people such as Mary, an intern with Marsh
Farm, that go no further than saying, “[T]here deﬁnitely needs to be
more social concern for how these groups have been treated.”
When there is a sense of policy solutions, this is usually uncon-
nected to any work undertaken by MHG. For instance, Lena, a staff
member who has lived right on the border for years, states, “I think
we really need to have some sort of Bracero program again.”While
she did not tie in how migrant farmworkers are treated once they
arrive, Karl suggests, “[T]here needs to be some regulation [like] …
a minimum farm wage [and] …adequate housing.”Despite the
visibility of heavy border policing, farmworker advocacy is limited.
Because of the prevalent military culture within San Diego,
some activists suggest that feelings of insecurity may squash
resistance to the increased border militarization. As Mara, a food
activist unafﬁliated with MHG explains,
[Y]ou don't recognize the fact that people feel a daily insecurity
about the border …and for a lot of the people here that's
because they may not be documented …[and] really feel the
impact of the border policing. We [also] have a strong military
presence here …there are people …very concerned with using
that lens of homeland security and military defense to how we
build our economy.
The hegemony of military might in San Diego reﬂects the
widespread research and development of surveillance technologies
(Trioni, 2012) and record resource allocations to government
agencies responsible for border security (Meissner et al., 2013).
MHG activists primarily see these technologies of control as a
threat to border crossers. Lena, notes empathically, “I see the Border
Patrol with their semi-automatic weapons and the new fence going
up. We hear the rustling in the bushes …and people are crossing
this heavily militarized area …You feel kind of caught in the middle
of …a crime almost …But at the same time I'm empathetic.”The
implication here is that the social boundaries produced by the
border reinforce the symbolic differences of citizenship and the
legal risks of challenging the militarization of the space.
Internalizing the boundaries produced by a militarized immi-
gration regime also contributes to a politics of quiescence. A former
board member, Stacy, reﬂects that “[P]olitics in San Diego is inter-
esting because it's not something that people engage in …because
of …the border [and] …the military …[I]t's very front and center.
Especially people in the progressive community working on food
issues, you know, tend to not dwell on that stuff.”These comments
reﬂect how the local alternative food movement compartmental-
izes its work in an era marked by a “paradigm of suspicion”and
spatial regulation of racialized groups (Shamir, 2005; Turner, 2007),
and does not prioritize engaging in conversation on immigration
and the border. For instance, a militarized borderculture permeates
the built environment of MHG. Signs stating, “WARNING Security
Camera in Use”and the occasional fake closed circuit surveillance
camera pepper the tool shed, Quonset hut, mobile ofﬁce, and out-
door kitchen and barn. Ostensibly, these cameras are to dissuade
potential burglars, but they also notify visitors to Marsh Farm and
border crossers alike that they are being watched.
Organic farming becomes politicized when the state visibly
patrols the border and attempts to convince farmers to maintain
social boundaries, instead of reimagining the space as a place to
grow food and bring people together. Such observations often led to
discussing less territorially deﬁnitive socioecological relationships.
After hearing about Border Patrol trying to locate crossers earlier in
the day, a few interns and one part-time farmer began reﬂecting on
the permeability of the border. At ﬁrst, the conversation focused on
the pervasive surveillance presence. A young intern Brady replied,
“I don't believe in borders. It doesn't make sense to me. It is a total
waste of time trying to keep people out. People have been moving
around the world for ever. Migration is a normal part of life.”Clara
commented, “I agree …People just don't understand what is lost if
we draw these invisible boundaries. There is so much to learn from
each other, for instance in terms of what food can be grown, and the
make up of the region's ecosystem.”Another time, Larry observed
that while farming the sound of helicopters is ever present, and
said, “They come out here to see what homeland security actually
looks like: food security. You [interns] are all dangerous people.”
This desire to transcend the social boundaries enforced by borders
and to reject the spatial logic of territories is occasionally expressed,
albeit by only a few people with no confrontational plan of action.
5.3. Operation of race and class privilege through idealizing nature
The desire of food activists to connect with nature and organi-
cally farm trumps challenging a militarized border or advocating
for farmworkers. While potentially transformative, ecological
considerations attenuate racial and ethnic considerations if the
imaginary remains symbolic and privilege is never challenged or
understood as a source that maintains boundaries. For example, an
eco-centric ethos was visible in a performance at Marsh Farm by an
artist-activist group that includes a few people from MHG, which
sought to convey the importance of farming in a manner that
protects the local ecosystem. After railing against greedy corporate
plundering of the environment, the performance ends with animals
and a farmer ﬁghting to remove destructive technology from the
ecosystem, and getting down to the work of organic farming. This
ecological ethos intersects with privilege, when for instance some
of the same performers announced Wendell Barry aphorisms to
“Love the world. Work for nothing,”and “Say that the leaves are
harvested, when they have rotted into the mold. Call that proﬁt.”
The reproduction of boundaries through these performances is
particularly striking given the elevation of farming to protect nature
for nothing but the knowledge that ecosystems are protected,
which masks the social inequalities embedded in this very
Although Marsh Farm's primary focus is on training organic
farmers and providing a space to learn about sustainable agricul-
tural models, it is embedded in a particular racial and economic
reality stratiﬁed along lines of human mobility and segregation in
San Diego. Reﬂecting on the physical separation of the Latino/a
community, Geraldo, an undocumented college student from
Mexico, states, “My people don't tend to mingle with the ﬁrst-class
citizens. I don't see a lot of my people going to the theater, or going
to nice restaurants. Why? There are not a lot of us who have the
careers that would allow us to do these things”(Mayhew, 2003).
J. Sbicca / Journal of Rural Studies 39 (2015) 1e106
While the white and middle to upperemiddle class segments of
San Diego usually experience greater mobility privilege, they hold
negative views of Tijuana, and rarely visit or cross the border. A poll
conducted in 2003 found that those with widely unfavorable per-
ceptions of Tijuana rarely, if ever visit, and a majority would like
more restrictive border policies or are content with current
enforcement standards (Nienstedt, 2003). Latino/as on the other
hand more frequently visit and overwhelmingly hold positive
perceptions of Tijuana.
Food activists maintain boundaries tied to mobility by deﬁning
community in terms of a commitment to reconnecting to nature,
which idealizes farming and serves as a proxy for downplaying
privilege. Attendees at monthly potlucks primarily consist of people
driving from Central San Diego down to the border to see an
organic farm and share in the joys of eating local foods. Similarly,
most interns committed to learning and improving their sustain-
able farming skills drive from far away to work this land and create
an ecologically sustainable space. These two groups are primarily
white when whites make up only 28% of the population in Central
San Diego and 22% in the South Bay (HHSA, 2011).
such realities, Jan, a staff member at MHG expresses,
I saw this picture of a religious family praying, saying, ‘Thank
you God for the food,’and underneath it this Mexican farmer
says, ‘de nada’like ‘you're welcome’…I'm kind of touchy when
it comes to racial classiﬁcation because there's just so much
built around it …I accept people and just kind of tend to get
away from the politics. It's just a natural response to a lot of
negative connotations and racial issues that obviously we all
For volunteers and interns at the farm, their labor experience
does not reﬂect that of the Latino portrayed in the quote. Further
demonstrating how idealized notions of farming reﬂect privilege
that maintains boundaries, Mary said, “I like to work happy jobs …
From what I see working on this farm, sustainabilitycomes into it. It
is not work that drains on you …and eventually …leads to higher
hospital bills …[or] damage[s] your body.”Similarly, Jan expresses,
“I am totally full of energy because it's almost like I'm going away to
an amusement park [and] …nurtured in a sense …[T]hen you
come back to asphalt, roads, and highways. I just love being out
there.”Many people who work on Marsh Farm have the privilege to
enjoy farming for its therapeutic beneﬁts in the midst of a place
where migrant farmworkers enter into a racialized agricultural
political economy that undervalues their labor.
Boundaries are maintained not only by privileging ecological
purity in the face of social inequality, but by desiring ecological
connectivity when it abuts the prerogative of national security. A
neighboring farmer, commenting on the constant buzz of helicop-
ters from the nearby US Navy helicopter training ground, and the
overwhelming Border Patrol presence, says, “That protection feels
excessive.”Instead, “We just want to grow food to feed people …
We want to learn the river; see where it rushes and where it is calm.
I want to know the names of the plants and trees and shrubs. Which
six animals left their paw prints in the mud?”Such feelings produce
a desire for transcendence. Colt, a farmer who used to work on that
farm and at Marsh Farm explains, “[B]orders in the environment
don't exist …We have birds that migrate from Mexico to our side.
We have squirrels that climb through …they also go back the other
way. Working with nature you start to realize that borders are this
man-made thing …in many ways an illusion.”These comments
stand in stark juxtaposition to border realities. The neighboring
farm leases its land from the Navy. While the deed prevents urban
sprawl and conventional farming, it allows organic farming, but no
public tours. The only visitors allowed are workers. Contradicting
the comments above, Colt notes, “Some of them [Mexican farm-
workers] would drive across the border every day to come work at
the farm [but when] …their visas expire, were not allowed to come
back.”The privilege to imagine territorial borders as open ecolog-
ical oases belies entrenched differences based on race and
At the same time, the desire to organically farm can obfuscate
challenging citizenship, class, and racial privilege. For example,
Sarah believes that there are labor and immigration issues that
harm Latino/as, and raises the issue of social boundaries:
I'm noticing, unfortunately, a lot of privileged white kids coming
to the farm that want to learn, myself included. We were raised a
certain way. We had everything. Now we realize that that's not
always going to be handed to us …For some reason, people at
the farm are more open minded and a little more liberal …Why
is that what it takes is to be young, Caucasian? …I see mostly
privileged people that have a lot …give that up to do something
like this …Why are we doing this [and] …recognizing this?
However, the difference may not be that people of color are
apathetic, but that they prioritize racial and economic justice, while
also integrating ecological considerations (Alkon, 2012). Sarah goes
on to share how many of the documented Mexican workers on
neighboring farms live during the week in crammed trailers, but for
those at Marsh Farm, “We're going to milk the goats and then …go
take a nap and do yoga …[E]verything has to be torn down in this
elitist mentality that I'm better than you, or else it won't change. I
don't believe so. I mean it could, miracles do happen, but yeah”
(emphasis mine). Despite recognizing social boundaries, the ubiq-
uity of surveillance (Lyon, 2007), and its racially stratiﬁed forms
(Shamir, 2005; Turner, 2007) in the context of US agriculture (Ngai,
2004) is reduced to a psychological condition, which minimizes
social responsibility and perpetuates privilege.
6. Resisting internalized power structures and imagining
In this section, I offer cautiously hopeful signs of resistance to
the production and maintenance of boundaries. Of particular
salience, and despite its insufﬁciency, ecological imaginaries
contain seeds of resistance. These imaginaries are most potent
when they tie in social considerations that connect the vision and
work of the farm to the reality of the place.
The ecological impermanence within which Marsh Farm is
embedded focuses MHG on producing food and showing that there
are replicable sustainable farming models. Only ﬁfty years ago, a
MexicaneAmerican family was farming in the same location. They
left, though, after a ﬂood destroyed their ﬁelds, buildings, and
home. Because of this, no one can live on site or construct perma-
nent structures. As Frank, a board member puts it, Marsh Farm “is
about dirt ﬁrst and preserving and maintaining the health of the
soil, which will produce food.”Further reﬂecting this commitment
to ecological and social resiliency through building up the soil in a
complex ecosystem, Stacy waxes, “The farm is in an amazing,
difﬁcult, hopeful place.”Unanswered questions follow this recog-
nition: “How can the land be a place of hope and promise and
sustenance? Not that sort of forced labor where people are coming
over to work land …being abused, and exploited in the process.
How could [MHG] provide this alternative vision of what agricul-
ture could be in California?”Toward such ends, Lena articulates that
In line with most San Diegans' geographical imagination, I cut statistics for
Coronado from the South Bay and added them to Central San Diego.
J. Sbicca / Journal of Rural Studies 39 (2015) 1e10 7
the organization is responsible for helping their community base
keep knowledge of this area alive because they are “right on the
border …in this urban setting [and] also …in this natural area
that's very important for our wildlife and our ecosystem.”Drawing
such connections sets a foundation for dissolving symbolic
More integrated socioecological perspectives that come from
spending many hours on the farm call attention to the permeability
of boundaries. For example, Akra once walked me around the
backﬁelds, which at the time were unplanted. He kept pointing out
that the soil in these ﬁelds was very fertile because of the practices
of the previous farmers. There was even an old compost area in the
middle of these backﬁelds. New hands, though, needed to bring it
under production. While explaining the prior use of the land, Akra
also pointed out the other animals that occupy the land. There were
coyote trails, which were visible because of their distinct scat, and
shallow eroded beds of dried up rivulets etched into the landscape.
Then turning to the movement of people, Akra shared that morning
Border Patrol agents in their cars and helicopters were chasing
down border crossers: “There are many immigrant trails that run
through this landscape. People have been using them for a long-
time; it's like the Underground Railroad.”Active solidarity and
support for those escaping slavery allowed the Underground Rail-
road to thrive, which set in motion movements that fought for
freedom and equality. In another way, food activists in the bor-
derlands are faced with a choice to move from imagining to dis-
solving social boundaries between themselves and migrant
Despite the alternative food movement's expressed concern for
racial and economic justice it has struggled to recognize and
address the conditions that produce and maintain boundaries for
migrant farmworkers. For those most directly witnessing the con-
ditions under which immigrants attempt to cross and integrate into
the Southern California economy, and who are not associated with
any law enforcement agency, we might expect there to be higher
levels of empathy and support. As my case reveals, though, while
some farmers and food activists are troubled by what they witness,
there is a possessive investment in privilege that is made all the
more difﬁcult to overcome given the power of economic and po-
litical structures to produce quiescence. So, it is not ignorance or ill
will that explains this lack of active solidarity, but rather the social
experience of organically farming in the midst of the boundaries
produced by a racialized agricultural political economy and immi-
In addition to witnessing the production of boundaries, food
activists also internalize some of the ideological hegemonies and in
turn maintain the boundaries. First, this is expressed in stereotypes
such as the intractability of migrant farmworkers, the necessity of
this labor to keep down food costs, and the claim they need this
work because they are “just surviving”, all of which strips political
agency and brackets out potential allies. Second, food activists feel
largely helpless in the face of powerful forces that monitor and
regulate immigrant bodies, which results in no effective resistance
to militarized and surveilled borders. Third, race and class privilege
operates to maintain boundaries by idealizing nature and farming
in the midst of obvious social inequalities in the borderlands.
While some food activists resist these hegemonies by imagining
how ecosystems transcend territorial borders, and possible ways
this intersects with social relations, there is less development of
widespread oppositional practices. This raises a number of issues.
The eco-centric politics in my case reﬂect a desire to educate and
provide opportunities for a privileged community to spread the
importance of organic local food and small scale production for sale
in shorter food supply chains. Moreover, it is common to sidestep
issues of inequality embedded in the economic, political, and social
landscapes of their work. More critical positions exist, but they tend
to come from those whose sensitivity to the context emerges with
constant exposure. But beyond individual acts of solidarity, such as
leaving food for border crossers, there is no organizational or
organized confrontation with the driving social forces. That said,
although the reproduction of racial inequality parallels the pro-
tection of certain individual privileges, alternative food organiza-
tions and the movement itself are not monolithic in programming,
personnel, or worldview. Activists can set a foundation for linking
the importance of diverse cultural foodways and fair farming
practices by illuminating how biodiverse and robust ecosystems
transcend territorial borders and the social and symbolic bound-
aries they produce. Yet, these more liberatory impulses require
organizational mechanisms that increase reﬂexivity (Sbicca, 2012).
One proposed mode of inquiry and politics to begin contesting
the inequalities that operate in particular places within food supply
chains is “reﬂexive localism”(DuPuis and Goodman, 2005). Such
reﬂexivity seeks to disrupt boundaries and build linkages across
difference. That is, to challenge the production of boundaries re-
quires resisting and ultimately eliminating the internalization and
maintenance of boundaries. For instance, we might begin thinking
relationally about how to connect the migratory ﬂows of nature
with the migratory ﬂows of people in a particular place. Immigra-
tion rights activists have adopted the monarch butterﬂyto
reimagine our connection to place as ﬂuid and provisional, yet in
solidarity with other migrants and those with whom new space is
shared. At the same time, this alternative imaginary is coupled with
confrontational politics to actualize the vision, whether through
actions such as protests at detention facilities, lobbying for policies
that protect migrant farmworkers, or transnational network
building to resist neoliberal trade agreements.
Reﬂexivity in thought needs to be matched with reﬂexivity in
practice. This might look like drawing connections across people
and place and expanding anti-racist practice within largely white
food spaces (Slocum, 2007), while also developing an anti-
oppression politics that confronts the militarization and surveil-
lance of borders and neoliberal policies and ideologies that
perpetuate social boundaries. Many people commit to buying
organic local food, but they primarily consist of a minority with
access to such food. As such, if one is a non-proﬁt like MHG
struggling to maintain a small working organic farm, producing for
this market becomes attractive. With few other forms of ﬁnancial
support such as grants, the most common source of non-proﬁt
funding, monetizing the organizational model becomes central. In
turn, tackling structural inequalities becomes secondary. This op-
position between creating alternatives that meet immediate needs
and engaging in a confrontational anti-oppression politics that
challenges the state is problematic. It is unreﬂexive and avoids
building cross-movement alliances capable of dismantling the
boundaries produced by racialized and neoliberal social systems. In
short, the alternative food movement can do more than foster food
system change; it can use food as a vehicle to forge social change.
Food, then, can become like the monarch butterﬂy, a symbol to
transcend social boundaries, and a tool for creating integrated so-
cial spaces predicated on equality and freedom.
Farming in contradictory spaces opens up the possibility for
developing more nuanced understandings of how and why
boundaries are symbolically and socially constructed, and resisted
and altered. The hegemony of the other as immigrant with its po-
litical, economic, and technological tools of enforcement confront
food activists farming along the border, and for that matter else-
where. At the same time, local ecological niches and the
J. Sbicca / Journal of Rural Studies 39 (2015) 1e108
agroecosystem of farms provide an example of how nature does not
respect borders in the same way as humans. Such juxtapositions
provide an opportunity for rethinking the reproduction and resis-
tance to racial inequality and migrant farmworker exploitation, and
the creation of more socially just and environmentally sustainable
Thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with me and
teach me about the complexities of farming along the border. An
early version of this article was presented at the 2013 Association of
American Geographers meeting where I received some helpful
comments from Alison Alkon. I would also like to thank Jill Harrison
for providing encouragement and feedback on a more developed
draft of this article. Last, I appreciate the thorough and constructive
comments I received during the review process. Obviously, any
mistakes or omissions are my own.
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