Culture and Agriculture
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
Startups in agricultural technology (agtech) often borrow business models from other technology sectors but rhetorics from agroecology and environmentalism. Thus many startups exhibit a hybrid nature, seeking to secure venture capital while appealing to consumers via claims regarding environmental sustainability and local production.
At venues ranging from tradeshows and “smart cities” conferences to design workshops at universities and informal meet-ups for eco-conscious hipsters, agtech startups present their imaginaries regarding high-tech farming, their specific hybrid green+capitalist natures. These events constitute experimental performances aimed at investors as well as sometimes-critical publics and competitors. Both successes and failures are showcased, the latter often framed as gifts of education—“compost” to feed future growth—but also improvisations, opportunities to reconfigure into more resilient assemblages.
This paper draws upon fieldwork in New York City to trace how different agtech startups—microalgae farm, software provider targeting home growers, shipping-container farm, and agtech co-working space—perform the business “pivot” or reconfiguration as opportunity during public performances.
In these moments, startup farmers position crises—of specific businesses and of land stewardship, biogeological processes, and urban foodsheds—as raw materials out of which green futures should be engineered. While continuous with a longer history of greenwashing and capitalist appropriation, the booming agtech sector’s appeals to ecological and urban–rural crises as self-evident problems that require consumer-driven solutions speaks to a shift in startup culture toward social innovations over purely technical ones. I read the act of pivot-improvising as a moment in which this shift and all of the tensions it provokes become visible.