Skip to navigation – Site map

HomeSpecial Issues: from thematic wor...S14Terroir and the Family Farm

Terroir and the Family Farm

Local Food and Raising Heritage Pigs in Northern Kentucky
La ferme familiale et le Terroir : élevage de porcs de race patrimoniale dans le Kentucky du Nord
Sharyn Jones


I argue that the concept of terroir is related to ideas about locally produced foods and health or wellbeing. Consumer demand for local foods and an emerging interest in terroir hold great potential for mobilizing meaningful social change related to food system sustainability, environmental stewardship, and community health. I explore the intersections of food and local agriculture with an emphasis on small-scale farms in Northern Kentucky. I also draw on my experiences as the co-owner of a small farm focused on heritage breeds. This work indicates that farmers and rural residents alike share a love and respect for the land that crosscuts economic, social, and historical divisions. An understanding of the articulations between alternative food production, agrarian identity, and entanglements beyond the human may illuminate successful approaches to locally derived sustainable food systems and grass-roots conservation efforts.

Top of page

Full text


“A medical doctor uninterested in nutrition, in agriculture, in the wholesomeness of mind and spirit is as absurd as a farmer who is uninterested in health. Our fragmentation of this subject cannot be our cure, because it is our disease. The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil. Intellectually we know that these patterns of interdependence exist; we understand them better now perhaps than we ever have before; yet modern social and cultural patterns contradict them and make it difficult or impossible to honor them in practice”. Wendell Berry (2015 [1977])

  • 1 Note that when I use the term “welfare” I am referring to wellbeing.

1The work described herein comes from a concern with health. That is, the kind of health that the Kentucky novelist, poet, farmer, and activist Wendell Berry refers to. The noun health derives from Old English, Old Norse, and Proto-Germanic terms relating to ideas of wholeness, being sound, wellness, holy, or sacred; later, the term morphed into notions of physical health as well as “prosperity, happiness, welfare, preservation, safety” and salutations that aspired to these states of being (Harper 2019). This article is not about health in the sense that we commonly use this term today, it is more closely aligned with the term’s hoary derivations. Wholeness, wellness, happiness, welfare1, and preservation are lofty aspirations that inspired the food-practices and work I discuss. Fundamentally, I argue that terroir may be understood and reformulated through explorations of health (in this ancient sense) on farms and in specific communities. I offer a case study focused on farmers in Northern Kentucky, of which I am one, and multispecies entanglements between consumers, producers, and animals, including heritage hogs. Through this exploration some of the complex problems associated with food production, sustainability, and making locally produced foods available to under-sourced consumers are also addressed. Ultimately, I hope that both this research and my own food production practices can help make my community and the environment healthier and more productive.

  • 2 Schnell argued that this so called, “food mile idea” is based on an overly simplistic concept of an (...)

2Each day we make decisions about what we consume. For some people eating is a ritualized joyous event, where fresh foods are essential to ideas about good taste, health, and well-being. The French concept of terroir, which may be understood as the taste of place (Trubek 2008), beautifully illustrates the interwoven relationships and dependencies involving people and all aspects of the physical environment, including plants, animals, water, and the soil, for example. Terroir is biological and cultural, it unites human and non-human phenomena. Terroir also evokes a recognition of a love and respect for food, history, and the land. Concepts such as local food and terroir provide a stark contrast with industrialized food systems and so much of what the majority of Americans eat on a daily basis. There are many clear problems and disconnects that stand out when one pauses to consider the global food chain and what ends up in the hands and mouths of most consumers. For the purposes of this discussion I will point to two of these. First, few people know where their food actually comes from or what and who were involved in this complicated and costly process connecting farm to table. An often-cited statistic is that food eaten in the U.S. travels on average between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table (Worldwatch Institute 2019; Schnell 2013).2 Second, technological advances in farming and our modern lifestyles have created conditions where we rarely associate food products with the plants and animals that contribute to them. Specifically, the very way that mass produced animal food commodities and animal lives (their value and quality) are described, marketed, and sold reflects a distancing of living creatures from items of human consumption (Buller and Roe 2018). This situation has inspired me to consider deeply what both anthropologists and the average person can do to understand and improve our food problems at home.

3Before diving into the topic of local food, the farm, and terroir, it is important to share some of my personal background and motivations. My previous research involves ethnoarchaeological work focused on understanding the relationship between food, identity, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and the environment among indigenous communities primarily in the Pacific Islands. These far-away study sites and the resulting research have provided a foundation for comparative analysis of identity formation and foodways more generally. In recent years I have found myself wanting to work closer to home and I am increasingly concerned about topics that overlap with my academic research in the community in Northern Kentucky where I reside. The outgrowth of this has been a shift in my focus to the development of community agriculture, and topics including small farm operations, sustainable production, and slow local food. Several years ago, I purchased an old farmhouse and land in a secluded rural area where my partner and I started a small farm. We raise produce and heritage livestock including pigs and chickens. Our goal was to create a small, sustainable operation where we could improve the land, farm organically without using pesticides and toxic chemicals, and pasture-raise happy healthy animals that are free from antibiotics and hormones. We wanted to be in control of our food and to create a healthier communion between what we eat and our immediate environment. Since we both have full-time academic appointments, farming provides a time to get away from our computers, to exercise, to enjoy the outdoors, and to take care of the land, our crops, and a menagerie of animals. The farm work we engage in is dirty, demanding, seemingly never-ending, and yet intensely therapeutic at the same time. One of the greatest rewards of the agrarian lifestyle is cultivating relationships, partnerships, and deep connections in the full range of stages with plant and animal life. Of course, caring for animals and raising them for food also involves making decisions about taking their lives. It would be a vast understatement to say that this aspect of farming is the least enjoyable. Personally, I have become increasingly challenged with this process but I have also developed an intimate appreciation and respect for the lives and experiences of animals that become food. Farming involves a situation where I care for animals, but they care for me and have changed me. This is a ‘mutual becoming’ (see Haraway 2008) and it has transformed both my daily life and work. As a result, I feel compelled to share my experiences, to educate others, and to practice a kind of personal applied agrarian anthropology. This paper blends a traditional academic approach and the long-established environmental essayist tradition.

Human-Animal Entanglements: theories and methods

4Over twenty years ago scholars from disciplines including those in the humanities and the social sciences began to explore what was later termed the “animal turn” (Anderson 1997). This approach involved an interrogation of the relationship between two concepts that have long been considered elemental and separate in theory and in reality, that is: nature and culture. As anthropology is literally the study of humans, humanity and culture (unique to humans) have long been our primary foci and therefore it is easy to criticize the discipline for being anthropocentric. This was followed by questioning the analytical disassociation of humans from the world around them and claims of human exceptionalism. In the perspectives that attempt to bring humanity/culture and the environment back together, nature and all its constituents are no longer things to be dominated, controlled, and exploited for human purposes. More recently, human-nonhuman relations, including both animals and other organic and inorganic matter, have become topics of intensive investigation in our discipline and others (e.g., Derrida 2003; Haraway 2008; Descola 2013; Kohn 2013; Buller and Roe 2018). These approaches are sometimes referred to as post-humanism and in anthropology they also relate to multi-species ethnography, a method that assumes both agency in non-human matter and deep entanglements between all lifeforms (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010).

5From a theoretical standpoint and as an object of study food and terroir allow us to investigate the recursive associations and dependencies between humans and non-human entities in new and interesting ways. Food is culture and nature. Humans make food and food makes us. Food is part of our identity, and our corporeal and spiritual beings. Food embodies our past and our experiences via culinary traditions, animal domestication, and daily life. If we assume that animals possess meaningful lives and an active complex existence, our understanding and appreciation of ourselves and the world may deepen. This idea brings us back to health and its association with preservation, wholeness, and wellbeing.

6Methodologically, my research draws from information collected via participant observation, interviews with farmers including roundtable sessions, focus groups, discussions at farmer’s markets, online webinars, conversations with USDA employees and Agricultural Extension officers, and policy professionals over the last five years. I conducted many one-on-one conversations with a variety of stakeholders who are engaged in farming, regulation, production, sales, and consumption. I have also reviewed the United States Department of Agriculture’s Census from 2012 and 2017. Finally, I studied and will reference data gathered from a large survey of southern Campbell County residents in Northern Kentucky which was conducted in association with the Campbell County Conservation District Office (Garkovich and Strode 2017). The survey was sent to all land owners in southern Campbell County in an effort to evaluate their attitudes and preferences about land use and future development patterns. The survey provides interesting information about residents’ perspectives on farming, subsistence, environment, and conservation. The following discussion uses multiple lines of evidence to problematize terroir from the perspectives of farmers, land owners, and everyday consumers who value local food and the unique characteristics of these products.

Farming and Making food local in Kentucky

  • 3 While there have long been debates about whether happy animals taste better, several factors should (...)

7Like a growing number of new farmers who run small-scale operations (9 acres or less), I attempt to farm organically, or perhaps, “traditionally”, without the use of medications, vaccinations, herbicides, and pesticides. My partner and I selected the American Mule Foot Hog as the foundation of our animal herd: first, because we enjoy eating pork and we value the taste of pasture raised meat vs. that produced in industrialized factory farms3. We are also committed to animal welfare and believe that an animal’s life conditions are important on many levels.

8The Mule Foot is a floppy eared, furry, black hog, that originated from the Midwest region in the late 18th century where it was an important component to regional culture (Holden and Ensminger 2005; The Livestock Conservancy 2019a). It is likely closely related to the black Iberian hog that is typically used to make highly sought after cured hams and other products. By raising this particular breed of pig in Northern Kentucky, we are attempting to bring the Mule Foot back to the region it originated in. We aim to reintroduce these pigs and their rich meat into the diets and consciousness of people here. Historically, the Mule Foot is part of the taste of the Midwest and the American South. As Weiss has effectively illustrated, place can be “…created by the paths forged by pigs…” and human-animal-environment relationships shape and are shaped by “…the pigs (and their pork) in qualities ranging from their parental skills, to their genetic viability, environmental impact, and succulence” (2011: 440).

9Over the years Mule Foot pigs, like many old-time farm breeds have almost become extinct due to the rise of industrialized agriculture. Modern agriculture relies on highly genetically modified animals rather than the slow growing heritage breeds. One farmer I spoke with referred to these pigs as, “turbo hogs,” a term that revealingly describes both the industrial process and the outcome. The largest hog operations in the United States typically focus on pink pigs, the Yorkshire. Since the mid-19th century this old English breed has been heavily modified making them suitable for large-scale hog operations. Quick growing, large, and now, unable to withstand sunlight – due to the fact that their skin burns, just like humans – means that they are kept indoors, often in incredibly close confinement. The second most common breed is the Duroc, a red pig that was selected and genetically modified to enhance its ability to grow rapidly on less feed. The Poland China is another important industrial pig that became increasingly important when “white” lean pork became highly sought after. The website for the Utah Pork Producers Association provides an illustrative description of this breed’s characteristics that make it ideal for the pork industry:

“Poland Chinas offer commercial hog operations increased sow herd longevity and breeding barn performance... Poland boars and sows excel in practical, money-making traits important to profitable pork production — natural soundness, a durable, sturdy structure and the ability to adapt to nearly any environment, from pasture huts to total confinement operations. Poland sows stay in durable condition, litter after litter, and perform in the farrowing house in a superior fashion” (Utah Pork Producers Association 2019).

10The modern pigs of choice, such as the Yorkshire, Duroc, and Poland China serve industrial agricultural operations because they are generally fast growing, lean with high weight gaining efficiency, and highly docile temperaments. Industrialized pig breeds stand in stark contrast to the Mule Foot and other heritage breeds that are more like wild pigs in their phenotype, disposition, lifestyle, natural growth rates, and fat to meat ratios. It is important to note that “heritage breeds,” according to the Livestock Conservancy (2019a), are animals that meet a range of criteria, including an established and continuous breeding population in the U.S. since 1925. These breeds must also have a lifestyle that is consistent with the history of the breed. That includes: diets that allow the hogs to exhibit natural omnivorous behavior; permanent access to open pasture or range; and freedom from antibiotics and synthetic or natural growth promoters or hormones (ibid.). Therefore, heritage breeds embody the essence of slow food and terroir. The pigs on my farm are: pasture-reared, slow growing, and they subsist off a varied, local, non-GMO diet, as well as a range of nuts, roots, and grasses that they forage. The pigs live in communities that reflect their social needs, that is they spend their time living in family groups, eating together, moving around the property, napping, making mud holes, and swimming in ponds. As a result of their lifestyle, these pigs are both happy, or content if you prefer, and delicious (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Pasture-raised pigs on the author’s farm in Kentucky

Figure 1. Pasture-raised pigs on the author’s farm in Kentucky

Photo by Sharyn Jones

11Small-scale organic farms are a growing movement of operations that are generally run by new farmers, many with college educations, who seek to be involved in sustainable agriculture and to capitalize on increasing consumer demand for fresh, locally produced foods. Many of these farmers are women and minorities including African Americans, Hispanics and military veterans. According to the 2012 United States Department of Agriculture’s Census (ERS 2017; USDA, 2019a,) there was a 2.2 % increase in the number of farmers under the age of 35 (with much more impressive increases in some states). An increase in the diversity of new farmers, both in terms of ethnicity and gender was also found. The USDA Census is taken once every five years, the newest census was released in 2019. There is both good and bad news. The new Census records an overall decline in the total number of farms in the U.S. as well as a decline the total amount of land dedicated to farming. This, along with other data in the report indicates that there are fewer farms overall, but the ones that persist are larger and more profitable than in previous years; middle-sized farms are struggling and in decline. The average income of individual farmers is also declining. The positive news from the USDA includes the following: more farms now use renewable energy; there is an increase in the number of organic farms; the amount of organic produce sold has more than doubled; 96 % of farms and ranches are family owned; and small farms, between 1-9 acres, are increasing in number, although these make up 0.1 % of all farmland in the U.S. (USDA 2019a; USDA 2019b). Due to the new way that data was collected for this Census, a shift to allow recording of multiple principal operators, the number of woman-run farms appears to have increased. This may indicate a real but small change in the gender of the person who makes most of the decisions on a daily basis (USDA 2019b).

  • 4 The USDA defines a beginning farmer as a person who has less than 10 continuous years of experience (...)

12To better understand patterns in farming terroir, and local food from a more regional perspective, I joined the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) in 2016, attended their annual conference in 2017, and began collecting information on this organization and their members. The mission of the SSAWG is to inspire and empower farmers to build sustainable food systems that are economically viable, ecologically sound, as well as socially just and humane (SSAWG 2019). I selected this organization because the group focuses, “… on issues and differing perspectives around food production, marketing, and distribution and brings sustainable solutions to farmers, families, and communities in the southern U.S.” by providing education and outreach to farmers and food advocates (SSAWG 2019). They operate in 13 states in the south, including Kentucky. Their annual conferences bring over 1,200 people together each year to learn, network, and share ideas. In a review of the last two SSAWG annual reports clear trends emerge. Between 20-33 % of the conference attendees were young adult farmers, under 30 years of age. Conference attendees were also diverse--with 87% of the 2017 participants and 80% of the 2018 participants coming from underserved groups including beginning farmers,4 socially disadvantaged farmers, and military veterans.

13My research and observations indicate that new farmers have entered into the agricultural scene across America and they are bringing with them ideas and motivations that differ from an older demographic of multigenerational family farmers in the Midwest and the South. While both groups many involve individuals or families that maintain small-scale farm operations which are often part-time, those who have recently started farming appear to have stronger associations with ideals of environmentalism, social justice, resistance to modern forms of production, and sustainable farming practices (Pilgeram and Amos 2015; Newolny and Lillard 2016; Minkoff-Zern 2017). They are also more willing to engage in practices such as organic farming, no-till farming, and permaculture; all of which are often more labor intensive than mainstream, technologically advanced, and factory-farm style production. They are interested in long term health of the soil and food systems in general. They seek to celebrate the cultural and culinary traditions of heritage breeds and heirloom products as well. As a result, the new farmers produce higher priced products because of their ideals and commitment to sustainable practices, environmental stewardship, and eating local. This group is also willing to pay higher prices for their own food. Nevertheless, the social and economic impact of small-scale farms, including both those operated by new farmers and older farms, is highly varied and dependent on many factors including, economics, community ideologies, and regional terroir. One of the most substantial differences in economics relating to small-scale farms is whether or not a regional sense of identity and taste of place are connected and recognized in ways that translate into marketing and selling food (Schnell 2011; Sidali et al. 2015). I will return to this point below.

14The new farmers and the multi-generation farmers share fundamental ideologies that connect these groups. Both groups of small-scale farmers have a respect for the land, a strong sense of place and their family heritage, and they have a deep concern for stewardship. These shared ideas have the ability to transform everyday practices and food items and to create meaningful connections between eating, the land, heritage, and environmental conservation. My case study from Campbell County, Kentucky illustrates this and allows us to examine more deeply the way that people might connect with each other, with nature, and with the non-human world.

Case study: Campbell County, Kentucky

15Campbell County is the northernmost county section in Kentucky. It is bordered on the north and east by the Ohio River, and on the west by the Licking River. Cincinnati sits just across the Ohio river from Northern Kentucky and is the largest city in close proximity. Campbell County includes just under 100,000 acres, of which 44% is classified as farmland (CCADC 2015). The topography is steep and variable, and farms include cropland, pasture, as well as woodland. Because of the terrain, crop production is relatively limited, and the land is most suitable for hay and pasture for livestock production. The primary crops include grains, hay, oilseeds, beans, melons, potatoes, fruit, nuts, berries, and tobacco (USDA 2017). A wide variety of produce and flowers coming from greenhouses and high tunnels also contribute to the overall market value of agricultural products. Livestock production is focused on cattle, chickens, hogs, sheep, goats, horses and their products (eggs, milk, wool). There is very little ethnic diversity among the region’s farmers, who are generally white, but women account for over 1/3 and new farmers make up 27% of the group. Almost all of the Campbell County farms are family run and owned with only 9% hiring labor (USDA 2017).

16About 85% of the Campbell County population lives in urban communities. The rural farms make on average about $13,000 in annual profits, with the bulk of its agriculture sales leaving Campbell County and/or going directly to the urban residents of the tri-state region (including Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky). There are currently four formal farmers markets in the county and several CSAs, or community supported agriculture operations.

  • 5 Kentucky Fried Chicken is another Kentucky export that for better or worse, has been imprinted on t (...)
  • 6 Tobacco was historically an important cash crop in Northern Kentucky but has become less important (...)

17When people think about Kentucky’s culture and terroir, items that come to mind may include: bourbon, tobacco, and horses.5 While the aforementioned commodities are certainly critical elements of the cultural landscape of this state, until recently these products have made a limited impact on the Northern Kentucky region, which is culturally and ecologically distinct from the classic Bluegrass region where the horse and bourbon industries emerged historically.6 Increasingly, bourbon and equine culture are part of an expanding agro-tourism industry, and Kentucky producers and retailers across the state work hard to cash in on demand for these distinctive commodities. At first glance, the bourbon industry might seem loosely connected with local agriculture, however this business provides an excellent example of the intimate connections between farming, terroir, domestic animals, and consumables. Bourbon is primarily made from corn (at least 51 %) and combined with other cereal grains such as rye or wheat. Many distilleries in Kentucky rely on a community of local farmers to produce this non-GMO corn and grain mix, forming the basis of the spirit. To describe this process in simple terms, the grains are mixed with water and yeast and then fermented, distilled, and aged to produce bourbon. In my conversations with small-scale distillers in particular, it is clear that they pride themselves on strong relationships with local farmers. Nevertheless, distilleries across the state are part of a cycle involving farmers that begins with the purchase of grain, but includes the return of the “spent mash” or grain removed from the alcohol after fermentation, to local farms. The spent mash, a byproduct of distillation, is an excellent source of food for livestock including pigs and cattle. Distillers provide their spent mash to farmers as feed for domestic animals. When considering the terroir of Kentucky, the distinctive taste of place can be understood and enjoyed through a meal including Kentucky-raised pork with a bourbon cocktail.

  • 7 Amino acids and phenolic compounds are abundant in brewers spent grains. Phenolic acids found in sp (...)

18Like the farmers connected with the distillers, many small farms in Northern Kentucky, including my own, rely on the spent grains from the micro-brewing industry. This is the leftover grain that comes from brewing beer. We feed our animals spent grains that are high in protein, fiber, and a variety of other nutritious elements including amino acids and phenolic compounds.7 This abundant byproduct has an oatmeal-like consistency and forms the basis of a healthy diet when combined with vegetable scraps, grass, and other foods that pigs forage naturally such as nuts. The breweries benefit from their relationship with farmers because disposing of the spent grain is costly and wasteful. A more eco-friendly and sustainable strategy involves providing the grain to farmers for feed. In fact, an increasing number of breweries now have small restaurants and cafes on their property that serve food derived from these farms and which is part of this hyper local entanglement. Farmers and brewers alike have discovered that consumers are excited to drink a local brew while eating a hamburger or pulled pork sandwich derived from a healthy pasture-raised animal that was fed on the same grain that produced their beverage. People are willing to pay more for a distinctive dive into this taste of place. At the same time, farmers, distillers, and brewers put extra effort and more resources into locally connected and derived products.

19The terroir in this situation involves a cycle of interconnecting elements, beginning on farms that produce grains and other cereals, as well as fruits, hops, and a variety of produce. These items provide food for livestock and key components in brewing or distilling. The cycle of interdependence continues when brewers and distillers provide spent grains to farmers and again when people consume and enjoy the products of local farming and production every day. Applying the lens of terroir illuminates the associations between sustainability, producers, consumers, the land, and agricultural plants and animals. Efforts to actively support wellbeing and heritage can be seen in this situation. What may be less obvious are the acts of resistance that emerge through the seemingly mundane daily practices of production and consumption.

  • 8 The full report on this survey as well as the detailed comments from respondents is available onlin (...)

20In Northern Kentucky there are several new and emerging modes of agricultural development and production coming from small-scale farms, some of which benefit operations run by part-time farmers. These include horticulture crops (native and non-native fruit trees, hops, flowers, produce, and herbs); grapes for wine and winery experiences; poultry and egg production; horse boarding, training, and riding clubs and camps; beef cooperatives marketing directly from farmers to consumers; farm or homestead crafts such as soap and honey; and backroads farm tours, on-farm markets, wedding venues, and seasonal events. New forms of agriculture and community oriented agro-tourism come from a grassroots level and therefore these are difficult to quantify and understand via government collected census data. For this reason, I focus on both my fieldwork and lived experience as well as information from a 2017 survey conducted on behalf of the Campbell County Conservation District (Garkovich and Strode 2017). The survey included 844 responses by landowners.8 This information help us understand the community’s attitudes about land use and future development programs as well as potential points of connection with terroir.

21Approximately half of the respondents to the Conservation District survey use their land for subsistence and/or commercial agriculture. The majority of respondents own 20 acres or less (53.3 %), while about 20 % of respondents operate farms that range from 41-100 acres. A remarkable proportion of respondents asserted that their primary relationship to the land is to provide for their family's own food needs. The fact that over a quarter of the respondents report that their land's primary use is conservation or preservation is also significant since this indicates broad opportunities for conservation and management programs and a strong local sense of stewardship. Survey participants identified their reasons for moving to or remaining in the rural area of southern Campbell County and their responses cluster around two themes. First, the respondents reported a desire for a rural lifestyle. Second, they said that they valued the opportunity to raise food for their families. Many people aspire to maintain ties to their heritage and the community by retaining the family farm and land, although this has become increasingly difficult for many rural landowners over the years, not only in the County, but across the U.S.

22Survey respondents were asked to describe what they envision when they think of a rural landscape. The majority (74.5 %) claimed that first, they think of "wide areas of open grass land or pastures or unbroken wooded tracts" (Garkovich and Strode 2017 : 6). Other responses (66.5 %) included references to how "small operating family farms (under 50 acres) represent the meaning of a rural landscape” (ibid). The survey participants felt that the three most important types of land to preserve and protect include: farmland for crops and/or pasture, natural landscapes for plants and wildlife, and natural landscapes for outdoor recreation such as hiking or trail riding. Farmland owners also explained what they aspire and hope for in the future. Sadly, what they expect will actually happen to their farms is very different from their desires. The survey responses clearly indicated that farmers highly value their way of life, yet they view it in opposition to other modes of living and income earning. In this way, living in rural environments is a form of resistance. The length of time and number of generations that a farm has been in the family is extremely important to farmers, but stress levels are high and profitability is low. It has always been difficult to recruit new generations of farmers. However, in Campbell County, ¼ of active farms are new operations suggesting that farming is on the rise in the region.

Lived experiences and participant observation

23In order to understand deeper perspectives from farmers on local agriculture, terroir, and health, an anthropological approach is essential. Through participant observations, interviews, and personal experiences several patterns emerge that confirm and expand on the survey results discussed above. My conversations have yielded the following key considerations and quotes that provide a framework for my future investigations into terroir in this region:

24-Farmers consistently state that they are passionate about the land and preserving their associations to it. This is true regardless if the farmer has inherited the property or recently purchased it to begin a new business/way of life. Both groups seek to engage with the land and a heritage entrenched in raising food and connecting with plants and animals. One farmer said, “You have to listen to the land and see what it can provide, but more importantly what it needs. You can’t force the land to do what you want—as a farmer you are in a relationship with nature and you are under her command.”

25-Farmers and non-farming families alike highly value and respect farming practice and the local agricultural character of the countryside where they live. “We want to live in a place where we can keep a garden, raise some of our own food, and see the stars and lightning bugs at night.”

26-Young farmers have moved to the country to “live a life that is different from an urban existence.” They also seek to “raise children who are connected with the land and who take responsibility for their food.” An important part of this involves teaching young people to grow their own food and care for domestic animals.

27-Farmers who work with domestic animals develop complicated relationships with them; they are highly sensitive to these creatures. Farmers seek to give their animals a high-quality life but must constantly negotiate a range of obstacles related to cost and benefits associated with feeding, housing, and overall care on one hand, and market value on the other. “Our animals tell us what they need through their mood and behavior. Each animal has its own temperament and character. If you watch closely their personalities become clear.” Another farmer explained, “While industrial or big agriculture tells us that we must vaccinate and medicate our livestock, this is a myth. When farm animals (especially pigs) are raised on pastures, using rotational grazing they have access to a wide variety of healthy foods to forage. They have some freedom, get lots of exercise, and they live the best life possible. These animals do not get sick easily, the way that animals raised in confinement do.”

  • 9 There is a great deal of literature that supports the idea that small-scale farming has better heal (...)

28-Farming and country living are ideologically associated with health and wellness. These practices epitomize a rural-urban divide. Locally grown foods are viewed as more nutritious and tastier than supermarket foods. Specialty items such as honey and tinctures of elderberry (genus Sambucus), black walnut (Juglans nigra), and pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) are believed to cure and prevent a variety of illnesses.9Nature has a way of restoring itself and the humans who live among it if you take care and let it flourish.”

29-Conversations are ongoing between farmers and consumers at marketplaces, farmers’ markets, and in community forums about the real costs associated with local food. While people seek out and appreciate the region’s terroir, educating people about the resources and labor involved in farming is critical. Across the state the University of Kentucky Agriculture Extensions offices and the County Conservations Districts work to promote agricultural education for farmers and the general public. Backroads farm tours that connect farmers and the public have been highly beneficial to this effort. For example, in Campbell County the annual farm tour brings around 1200 visitors to farms on a single day in July each year. While visiting up to a dozen farms, visitors can eat, drink, learn and experience terroir first hand as they come to appreciate the many contributions that agriculture and farming make to the regional community. On my farm I am constantly told by visitors that prior to their tour they had no idea what was involved in producing the food they eat every day. Seemingly simple items such as bacon and tomatoes are taken for granted when consumers lose their associations with the land and the regional tastes associated with place. “You have to eat heritage breeds to save them. By getting the word out, educating people about farm life and products, and letting them taste these items a revolution begins in your heart and mouth.”

30According to interviews and roundtable discussions with new farmers and those who run long-standing, small-scale operations, the biggest obstacles to the success of farming include: finding a reliable niche in the face of constant changes; marketing and making consumers aware of farm offerings; the cost/benefit divide associated with small-scale agriculture; and meeting consumer demands in the face of uncertain returns that are dependent on seasonal conditions. On farm diversification is an important strategy for dealing with uncertainty which has been adopted by many farmers. Some of these challenges are also being addressed through education.


31Although there are certainly difficulties associated with the farming way of life, I see many positive points to highlight. There is great potential for Northern Kentucky farmers, especially those who run small-scale operations to connect with local markets more effectively, to engage the community, and to potentially increase conversations about terroir (Schnell 2011, 2013). Yet, there are many challenges surrounding the future of farming in the region. Specifically, the high price of land, the aging farming population, and a lack of understanding of the importance of agriculture by urban citizens are issues that came up repeatedly in my conversations with farmers. Many of these same problems correlate with farming challenges at national and international levels.

32At present the primary obstacle I see in Northern Kentucky is ideology. The ideology problem has several detrimental outcomes, two of which are especially critical to the discussion of terroir. First, in this region, there is a long-standing and serious ideological divide between the rural and urban populations. Culture, history and economics come into play here in ways that have created barriers to collaboration, networking, and trust. In general, the historical patterns of immigration in the Northern Kentucky and greater Cincinnati region have created communities that are intentionally isolated. This willful social and political detachment is found in rural and urban communities alike. It is a direct result of the cultures that pre-German unification peoples brought to the region in the mid-19th century as they settled here. The resulting communities are politically and economically conservative. Agricultural areas are affected by small government and highly varied local regulations that form a patchwork within the county, yet these are spread over a small geographic area. This old traditional ideology of separation and distrust prevents the easy movement of goods and services as well as the flow of innovative ideas.

  • 10 Examples of some of the amenities that many rural residents in Northern Kentucky lack include acces (...)

33Additionally, there are potentially conflicting or complicating beliefs and practices involved in agrarian and rural lifestyles. Farmers and many Campbell County residents maintain their lifestyles with an understanding that this is a form of resistance. They view themselves as stewards of the land and they are willing to put up with smaller roads, limited commercial services, a lack of access to city water and high-speed internet, and fewer nearby shopping options in order to maintain their way of life.10 At the same time, they have curated their lives seeking to produce food to feed their families and in some cases to make profits from their property and goods. They have a strong sense of the taste of place. They enjoy eating from the land and agrarian experiences, but the problem of low income complicates this. Residents of Campbell County, have a median household income of around $55,800, with lower averages in rural areas (CCADC 2015). This is below the national standard and thus people in this region are struggling to remain part of the middle class. Moreover, many farmers that I interviewed have operations with a negative balance at the end of each year. People value local food—that is, fresh food produced in Northern Kentucky—especially beef, pork, and game that is hunted on and immediately around the property of rural residents. Yet, many people cannot afford to pay more than a couple dollars per pound for beef or pork at the market.

34It is important to recognize that rural residents and farmers alike share a love of and a respect for the land. Connecting this ideology of place with food, health, and heritage is a challenge that can be addressed through community outreach and education. Several organizations in the region are already doing this, including Agriculture Extension Offices and the Conservation Districts. Studies confirm that when regions promote both knowledge and consumption of local products, culinary traditions are preserved and more strongly marketed (Alonso and O’Neill 2012). Future development strategies in Northern Kentucky should focus on reducing the ideological divide in the county by emphasizing farm-to-fork practices, discussing terroir, and expanding an appreciation for particular forms of locally produced food products. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs may offer benefits including economic opportunities and security for small-scale producers if cooperative collaborations between small farms can be forged (DeLind and Ferguson 1999; Cone and Myhre 2000; Schnell 2013). The CSA structure may enable relationships that extend beyond the marketplace and that hold potential to make consumers food activists and stewards (DeLind and Ferguson 1999). Undoubtedly, farmers markets and CSAs help consumers make connections between food consumption and production rooted in place (Schnell 2013: 625). Research also illustrates that CSAs may make a substantial positive impact on foodways, eating behaviors, and health at the household level when combined with education programs (White et al. 2018).

35An emerging focus among small-scale farmers on heritage breeds and heirloom products also addresses some of the challenges and contradictions presented here. Heritage farms support genetic integrity, bio-diversity, animal welfare, and even long-term conservation through rotational grazing practices. These operations encourage management strategies that are biologically appropriate and agriculturally sustainable; they promote environmental health, human and animal health, and they celebrate cultural and culinary traditions. In these ways, local foods and terroir are economic development strategies: there is much promise here for small-scale farmers and for consumers.

36In sum, terroir allows us to investigate how producers and consumers are actively involved in maintaining health, quality of life, heritage, conservation, economic diversity, and even resistance through mundane daily practices. Humans both shape and are shaped by their environments and a vast variety of interrelated elements. We are not distinct from the plants and animals that we nurture and feed, these beings contribute to our existence in intricate cycles of entanglement. Exploring these relationships through the lens of terroir brings to the forefront an understanding of the interconnectedness of humans and nature as well as our mutual dependencies.

Top of page


ALONSO A. D. & O'NEILL M. A. 2012. “Muscadine Grapes, Food Heritage and Consumer Images: Implications for the Development of a Tourism Product in Southern USA.” Tourism Planning and Development 9(3): 213-229.


ANDERSON K. 1997. “A Walk on the Wild Side: A Critical Geography of Domestication.” Progress in Human Geography 21(4): 463-485.

BERRY W. 2015. (Counterpoint; Reprint Edition) [1977]. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press.

BULLER H. & ROE E. 2018. Food and Animal Welfare. London: Contemporary Food Series, Bloomsbury Academic.

CCADC (Campbell County Agricultural Development Council). 2015. 2015 Update of Campbell County Comprehensive Plan. Submitted by the CCADC, accessed July 1, 2018: []

CONE C. & MYHRE A. 2000. “Community-Supported Agriculture: A Sustainable Alternative to Industrial Agriculture?” Human Organization 59(2): 187-197.

DELIND L. & FERGUSON A. 1999. “Is This a Women's Movement? The Relationship of Gender to Community-supported Agriculture in Michigan.” Human Organization 58(2): 190-200.

DERRIDA J. 2003. “And Say the Animal Responded?” In, C. Wolfe (ed.), Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal: 121-146. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

DESCOLA P. 2013. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

ERS (Economic Research Service of the USDA). 2017. “America’s Diverse Family Farms, 2017 Edition.” United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Information Bulletin Number 185, December 2017, accessed July 12, 2019: []

GARKOVICH L. & STRODE D. 2017. “Campbell County Conservation District 2017 Survey Results.” Report on file with the Campbell County Conservation District Office, Alexandria, Kentucky, accessed July 1, 2019: []

HARAWAY D. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

HARPER D. 2019. “Etymonline. Online Etymology Dictionary,” Health, accessed 9 July, 2019: []

HOLDEN P. J. & ENSMINGER M. E. 2005. Swine Science (7th Edition). London: Pearson.

IKRAM S., HUANG L., ZHANG H., WANG J. & YIN M. (2017), “Composition and Nutrient Value Proposition of Brewers Spent Grain.” Journal of Food Science 82: 2232-2242.

DOI: 10.1111/1750-3841.13794

KIRKSEY S. E., & HELMREICH S. 2010. “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology 25(4): 545–576.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01069.x

KOHN E. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

MINKOFF-ZERN L. 2017. “Race, Immigration and the Agrarian Question: Farmworkers Becoming Farmers in the United States.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 45(4): 1-20.

DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2017.1293661

PILGERAM R. & AMOS B. 2015. “Beyond “Inherit it or Marry it”: Exploring How Women Engaged in Sustainable Agriculture Access Farmland.” Rural Sociology 80: 16–38. DOI:10.1111/ruso.12054

SCHNELL S. M. 2011. “The Local Traveler: Farming, Food, and Place in State and Provincial Tourism Guides, 1993–2008.” Journal of Cultural Geography 28(2): 281-309.

DOI: 10.1080/08873631.2011.583441

SCHNELL S.M. 2013. “Food Miles, Local Eating, and Community Supported Agriculture: Putting Local Food in its Place. Agriculture and Human Values 30: 615-628.

SIDALI K. L. KASTENHOLZ E. & BIANCHI R.  2015. “Food Tourism, Niche Markets and Products In Rural Tourism: Combining The Intimacy Model And The Experience Economy As A Rural Development Strategy” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 23(8-9): 1179-1197

DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2013.836210

SSAWG (Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) 2019. “” About SSAWG, accessed 12 July, 2019: []

THE LIVESTOCK CONSERVANCY. 2019a. “” Mulefoot Hog, accessed 12 July, 2019: []

THE LIVESTOCK CONSERVANCY. 2019b. “” Definition of Heritage Swine and Pork Products, accessed 12 July, 2019: []

PIROG R., VAN PELT T., ENSHAYAN K. & COOK E. 2001. Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa Perspective On How Far Food Travels, Fuel Usage, And Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Ames, IA: Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, accessed 13 July, 2019: []

TRUBEK A. B. 2008. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir. Berkeley: University of California Press.

UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA). 2017. “” 2017 Census of Agriculture County Profile. Campbell Country Kentucky, accessed 12 May, 2020:


UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA). 2019a. “” Census of Agriculture, accessed on 12 July, 2019: []

UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA). 2019b. “” 2017 Census of Agriculture Data Now Available, accessed 12 July, 2019: []

UTAH PORK PRODUCERS ASSOCIATION. 2019. “” Pig Breeds, accessed 13 July, 2019: []

WEISS B. 2011. “Making pigs local: Discerning the sensory character of place.” Cultural Anthropology 26(3): 438-461.


WHITE M., JILCOTT PITTS S., MCGUIRT J., HANSON K., MORGAN E., KOLODINSKY J., . . . & SEGUIN R. (2018). “The Perceived Influence of Cost-Offset Community-Supported Agriculture On Food Access Among Low-Income Families.” Public Health Nutrition 21(15): 2866-2874.

DOI: 10.1017/S1368980018001751

WORLDWATCH INSTITUTE. 2019. “Worldwatch Institute: Vison for a Sustainable Future” Globetrotting Food Will Travel Farther Than Ever This Thanksgiving, accessed 11 July, 2019: []

Top of page


1 Note that when I use the term “welfare” I am referring to wellbeing.

2 Schnell argued that this so called, “food mile idea” is based on an overly simplistic concept of an “average item of food” that would apply to the entire U.S. and an average consumer (2013: 616). He attempted to create more precise descriptions of how far food travels in particular regions but determined that, “the data to compute figures at a more geographically specific scale simply do not exist, or are inaccessible” (ibid.). Schnell was able to track down the original source of the estimated 1,500 average food miles and attributes that figure to Pirog et al. (2001).

3 While there have long been debates about whether happy animals taste better, several factors should be taken into account when considering how taste is affected by the overall welfare or wellbeing and the lifestyle of food-animals. Industrialized farming emphasizes the quick growth of animals and typically involves higher stress environments than pasture-raised animals. These factors directly affect the texture, chemical makeup, color, fat-content, and the overall taste of meat. In comparison to the industrial-pig, it is easy to see how well fed, content, pasture-raised pigs that have relatively stress-free lives might be considered “happy.”

4 The USDA defines a beginning farmer as a person who has less than 10 continuous years of experience owning and/or operating a farm.

5 Kentucky Fried Chicken is another Kentucky export that for better or worse, has been imprinted on the public’s consciousness via wildly successful global marketing. I do not discuss this here because fast food inherently contradicts the essence of the terroir concept.

6 Tobacco was historically an important cash crop in Northern Kentucky but has become less important in recent years.

7 Amino acids and phenolic compounds are abundant in brewers spent grains. Phenolic acids found in spent grains have biofunctions including antioxidant, anticarcinogenic, and anti-inflammatory activities according to recent research (Ikram et al. 2017).

8 The full report on this survey as well as the detailed comments from respondents is available online at:

9 There is a great deal of literature that supports the idea that small-scale farming has better health outcomes, human-animal relations, and long-term sustainability than industrial farming (e.g., Buller & Roe 2018).

10 Examples of some of the amenities that many rural residents in Northern Kentucky lack include access to city water and reliable high-speed internet. In the case of water, residents who live in old homes and farmhouses often have in-ground cisterns, that may or may not collect rain water via water catchment systems and rain gutters. As a result, many residents in southern Campbell County either haul their own water or pay for water hauling services.

Top of page

List of illustrations

Title Figure 1. Pasture-raised pigs on the author’s farm in Kentucky
Credits Photo by Sharyn Jones
File image/png, 927k
Top of page


Electronic reference

Sharyn Jones, « Terroir and the Family Farm  », Anthropology of food [Online], S14 | 2020, Online since 31 July 2020, connection on 22 September 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Top of page

About the author

Sharyn Jones

Professor of Anthropology, Northern Kentucky University,

Top of page


Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Top of page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search