‘Finance going farming’: A review essay



In recent years, land has once again received a great deal of attention in critical agrarian studies. The most recent ‘land rush’, which began in 2008, has forced issues surrounding land to centre stage, not only in the Global South but also in the Global North. Madeleine Fairbairn’s and Stefan Ouma’s books are the first two monographs that provide an extended investigation into finance’s engagement with farmland. Although approaching the subject from different theoretical angles – Fairbairn is firmly rooted in agrarian political economy, while Ouma engages what he calls a ‘middle ground’ between political economy and a more practice-oriented approach – both books set out to understand finance’s growing interest in farmland from the perspective of the financial actors involved, and inquire how, why, and with what kinds of challenges finance has been going farming. Both authors conducted extensive qualitative empirical research on the nascent farmland investment industries of the early and mid-2010s, but with different regional foci. Fairbairn looks at the US and Brazil, while Ouma mostly draws on research conducted in Aotearoa New Zealand and in Tanzania.

Both books originate out of and speak directly to the land rush debate – albeit with different approaches and motivations. Fairbairn’s work seeks to understand why farmland has become appealing to investors, how investments have been made possible institutionally, and are being legitimized morally, and what role national-level politics have played in mediating the new relationships between global financial capital and farmland. Rather than tying his work neatly into the land rush debate – as Fairbairn does – Ouma starts by deconstructing the very foundations of the debate in terms of its theoretical assumptions and approaches to knowledge production. His aim is to complicate the sometimes all too easily assumed alliances between finance and farmland by getting ‘in between’ M and M’ (where M is the initial monetary investment and M’ is the investment plus a return on that investment).

Fairbairn’s and Ouma’s books contribute to an advanced understanding of the financialization of farmland in three ways. Firstly, they make a strong case for the value of historical depth before subscribing too hastily to a ‘discourse of newness’ of the land rush. The authors show that financial capitalism relies on techniques and metrics as well as long-standing processes of privatization, commodification, and marketization as prerequisites. All these have been developed and ‘globalized’ over several centuries within the context of colonialism and the expansion of Western value systems across the world. Importantly, recognizing this history allows us to identify what is new about the present: the current power and global reach of financial institutions, the professionalization of asset management services and institutions, and a widespread normalization and acceptance of financial norms and practices.

Secondly, both books show convincingly that the recent rush for new ‘real’ and ‘tangible’ asset classes has not occurred in a political vacuum, but has been facilitated and enabled by deliberate political decision-making of the state around financial markets and capital over decades. In this way, Ouma’s and Fairbairn’s accounts corroborate the endogenous role of the state within land’s investability. That is to say, the state not only sets the rules for, oversees and approves investments in land,  it also navigates conflicting interests over capital accumulation from land, mediates public debates over land and is the main provider of knowledge about land. All these state functions, as the authors’ analyses show, are not enacted in any ‘neutral’ or consistent way but are often contradictory and contested.

Thirdly, the authors present strong arguments against the idea that farmland could all too easily become ‘just another asset class’. Ouma and Fairbairn both make clear that the ‘financialization of farmland’ is not necessarily a given. It is a process with many variables and vagaries, which needs to be scrutinized and explored in itself.

Representing the first two monographs in this still comparatively young field of research, both books are without doubt of high quality. Despite – or maybe because of – their different approaches, they can be fruitfully read in conjunction. The two approaches they take represent two ways of trying to make sense of the complex, and still rather inaccessible, field of finance – along with its increasing outreach into further areas of our world. One book’s weaknesses – if that can be said, given the high level of scholarship of both books – represent the other’s strengths, and vice versa. I highly recommend reading both books, but suggest starting with Fairbairn.

Fairbairn’s book is more accessible for a general audience and serves as an excellent introduction to the field. Although deeply informed by major debates in critical agrarian studies, the book still remains highly readable given its crystal clear language and pliable writing style. The weaving in of empirical material from Fairbairn’s fieldwork – often in the form of vignettes – helps to nicely illustrate specific dynamics and makes the otherwise somewhat dry topic tangible and personal. Despite these empirical accounts, the book, however, mostly provides a macro-level analysis. This inherently means that sometimes the book makes broad statements and includes some oversimplifications and generalizations.

This is where Ouma steps in and provides yet another layer of questioning, repositioning, deconstruction, and further complication. Densely composed, his book opens up an entire universe of ‘operations’. He never steps back from his main objective of unpacking the manifold practical steps and conditions that forge ‘institutional landscapes’. To avoid getting lost in this web of operations, however, Ouma’s book requires patience and attention to detail from its readers. In some chapters, the flow of operations is presented more convincingly than in others. Especially in the two last chapters, this flow gets a bit lost across different localities and regional contexts.

Despite these small points of criticism, both books are excellent pieces of scholarship, and pioneers in this still relatively young field of research. As the first two monograph-length accounts of ‘finance going farming’, they will be key references in the field in coming years.

[This is an abridged version. Read the complete review essay here.]

Sarah Ruth Sippel is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and the SFB 1199, Leipzig University, Germany.