This project asks how local food producers and distributors are using emerging digital technologies to connect with consumers and manage farm labor in ways that will have consequences for agricultural sustainability, surveillance capitalism, rural labor, and access to fresh and healthy food in the post-coronavirus era. The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in America’s centralized, data-driven food system, including crop destruction when retailers cancel bulk orders and viral outbreaks when farmworkers and meat processors cannot socially distance in their work. Despite this attention to larger producers, the pandemic has also disrupted local food networks that rely on decentralized, idiosyncratic digital surveillance to plan farmwork and reach markets. As small farmers and local food distributors switch en masse to replace face-to-face networking with digital tracking systems, the ways that they manage data form an invisible infrastructure governing risk, food access, and the consolidation of power within these networks. We propose to interview local farmers, food distributors, and digital tool developers, recording their experiences of this transition alongside de-identified screenshots and workflows of the tools they use to manage and organize data. These data include worker health, supply orders, food access, and farm productivity, presenting ethical and logistical problems for farmers and local food supporters. Just access to food and work requires urgent research to understand the technology-mediated systems that connect farms and eaters. By centering the collection and interpretation of data, this project analyzes how sociocultural biases in data management inform the decision-making that will shape the post-coronavirus rural economy.
Assistant Professor, Purdue University