The “Progressive Farmer” and the Moral Worlds of Agri-Commodity Standardization in India

Talk by Amrita Kurian (Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania)

This paper uses a historical and ethnographic approach to analyze how the ideal of the “progressive farmer” percolates into the literature and processes that help establish the latest standards in Indian Flue-Cured Virginia (FCV) or cigarette tobacco markets. A legacy of colonial and postcolonial agricultural improvement projects, tobacco companies use the term as an accolade, indicating their preference for collaborating with some farmers over others – usually affluent farmers with the resources necessary to invest in improving farming practices. In a cash crop economy dominated by a few large buyers, these preferences also strongly influence the direction of state regulation and infrastructure projects. The paper argues that “progressive farming” practices geared toward producing standardized commodities reinforce the rural hegemony of affluent farmers while masking the infrastructural changes that have, over the years, shifted the financial burden of producing a quality crop from producers onto farmers. On the other hand, farmers, particularly affluent farmers, negotiate evolving metrics used to evaluate farming practices to variously align with the state and corporations and further their own goals of accumulating wealth and prestige.

Amrita Kurian is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania. She has a Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology from UC San Diego and an M.Phil in Sociology from the Delhi School of Economics. Her ethnographic research is based in the Flue-Cured Virginia (FCV) tobacco sector in rural Andhra Pradesh, India, where she studies experts’ scientific and affective mediation of markets and agrarian relations of production. Her articles titled “Flowers of Deception,” “Expert Disenchantment,” and “Progressive Farmers” are at various stages of review in Cultural Anthropology, Science, Technology, and Human Values, and Geoforum. Her essay “Accusations of Corruption: A Cautionary Tale from Indian Tobacco Auctions” was published in India in Transition and

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