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Forage for Thought 1: A rant

Thursday 01 July 2010

I have been trying for more than a year to do a close reading of a paper by Klaus Weber of Northwestern and two doctoral candidates, called “Forage for Thought: Mobilizing Codes in The Movement for Grass-fed Meat and Dairy Products”, in the Administrative Science Quarterly (find it here). The article touches several points that interest me: differentiating products in the agri-food sector, collective entrepreneurship, and shared identities. Alas, I could never finish the paper. It made me so angry that I slammed it down every time.

My biggest gripe with the research is that it purports to construct a model of the relationships between a social movement (grass-fed beef vs. conventional feedlot-finished beef) and the entrepreneurial opportunity that the social movement affords to create a market segment. The process involves the understanding and mobilization of cultural codes that are common in the social movement that connote high order descriptors (grass-fed connotes sincerity, purity, permanence, etc — see figures 1,2,3; and conventional production connotes deceit, depletion, dirty) and that denote specific expressions that are incorporated into the language of production, social identity, and exchange. This semiotic analysis has some merit (see my subsequent post). But the authors muddied the analysis by confounding “grass-fed” with a variety of production practices, social phenomena, and other baggage. For example, organic production, heritage breeds, raw milk, slow food, multi-species farming, omega-3 fatty acids, and rural communities show up in the three tables of denoted expressions. This was by design. “We also collected data on adjacent markets for organic and local food to better understand the movement’s uniqueness…”(page 536). The authors drew specifically from conferences on local food and organic production.

How, then, can we follow the logic between the codes of the grass-fed movement and the entrepreneurial opportunities afforded by THAT movement, when slow food, organics, and locavory are thrown into the mix? Moreover, they included poultry, bison, goats, and sheep, and pigs (page 536) among the production units they studied. One hesitates to call this sophomoric, though any sophomore that I have taught in the last 30 years would know better than to throw all of these ancillary social issues and species together into a term paper on grass-fed beef. Of course, the vast majority of my students have been students of agriculture and food, even the rural sociologists among them. I know! I know! The title of the article says “grass-fed meat and dairy products”, but (dammit!) what the authors write about in describing the conventional vs. grass-fed industry is BEEF. Never mind that they don’t deliver on dairy products, either.

The authors make a great deal of their “data”: 41 semi-structured interviews with activists, ranchers, farmers, consumers, and journalists (!). They started with 24 respondents from a sampling frame of 50 producers drawn from a universe of 280 producers that are associated with the America Grassfed Association and, a website dedicated to pasture-based production. These 24 nominated “other producers, key figures within the movement, consultants, distributors, consumers, journalists, and chefs” until the researchers  felt that “information from these interviews reached a saturation point.” (page 536). So, saturation was achieved after 17 additional interviews were completed. Nowhere does it state how many of the 17 were chefs, journalists, consumers, distributors, etc.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have done semi-structured interviews in past research. Good technique. But I have never had the chutzpah to design a single semi-structured survey instrument that I would use across such a disparate respondent group. What does one ask of a chef, a consumer, a rancher, and a journalist in a common instrument? I suppose that is how you get to “cultural codes in common use in the movement”.

The survey data were augmented with archival data: web sites on grass-fed production, “several books on grass-fed production that were recommended by our interviewees” (page 536), all issues of the Stockman Grass Farmer, and 20,000 written comments on the proposed USDA proposed rules for a label for grass-fed production. There were also field notes from conference presentations by “numerous activists, including leaders of advocacy groups or sustainable agriculture, those representing nutritional causes and slow food ideas, chefs, a regional buyer for Whole Foods, farmers’ market coordinators, and managers at natural and conventional supermarkets” (page 537). MORE MUDDYING! This is where I usually through the paper down in disgust.

A couple of thoughts:

1. The USDA gave up on developing a label for grass-fed products about 3 years ago. What does that say about the degree to which the cultural codes were codified?

2. The authors note that in 2006, the market penetration for grass-fed products was 0.2 percent of the meat and dairy sector — as measured by producer numbers. Teeny. But if we looked at market penetration by volume of production from these very few, very small farms, we probably couldn’t see it with the aid of the Hubble telescope. If we were careful and broke this aggregate down into important product classes — fresh beef, fresh milk, cheese and other processed dairy products, would we know more or less about the actual market-making between consumers and producers? I’d say more. I believe these markets are distinct, whether the social movement is or is not.

The remainder of the paper draws several bold ( I am being kind here) statements about what the data show about the roles of cultural codes in attracting producers to this new niche, reducing exit at early stages in niche development, and the creating of shared, or collective, identity among the producers. I just wish there was one datum to support these conclusions.

And, finally: why do the authors insist on calling this an “extreme” case? Why not “revelatory”, “paradigmatic” or “holistic, single” case? Aren’t extreme cases often called “deviant”, because they represent something out of the norm? If I am correct on this, then the grass-fed case doesn’t inform us about how social movements generally affect entrepreneurial activity,

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