Thursday, 7 April 2016

The Central Experimental Farm as a "Truth-Spot."

Detail from "Soils of the Central Experimental Farm" showing the original 465 acres.

Author's note: this post is a bit of an experiment. In it I use the Central Experimental Farm to explore Thomas Gieryn's concept of "truth-spots." It is written in a particular moment when the Farm is still facing threats to its research fields, and those politics of course carry through. In a sense this post is inspired by the great community of active historians and my desire to draw out the concepts embedded within my other public writings on the subject. Some of the links may lead to articles behind (steep) paywalls.

In the conclusion to his exploration of the interwar Chicago School of Urban Studies, Thomas Gieryn posits that "in the emplacement of its is probably not the exception, but the rule."

Gieryn's current research project focuses on what he calls "truth-spots." Simply put, truth-spots are locations where knowledge about the world is created and, importantly, legitimized. When applied to science this presents a curious "paradox of place and truth" (emphasis in original).*

Science, like all human endeavors, is a cultural process. People do it in places. It involves learned practices and discourses. But objectivity is (often) a central legitimizing discourse in science. The literary abstraction of science from where it is practiced is part of the epistemic scaffolding used to reinforce its status as universal knowledge. As Gieryn notes, "scientific claims are diminished in their credibility as they are situated somewhere, as if their truthfulness depended upon conditions located only there."

At the same time some subjective contexts of science can provide studies performed or published in their gambit with powerful legitimacy. There's prestigious universities (the Ivy League and Oxbridge); journals (Nature or Science); institutions (CERN and NASA); and field stations (Rothamsted Research and Kew Gardens).

Ottawa's Central Experimental Farm is another such institution.

Of course the authority of the truth-spot as a rich place or an empty space is, as with everything, historically and geographically contingent. Gieryn traces his paradox using three examples: Walden Pond in the 19th century, the interwar Indore Institute of Plant Industry, and the contemporary Lewis Thomson Laboratory at Princeton. While Walden becomes universalized through its particularities and the modern laboratory at Princeton is authoritative because it is, more or less, like any other microbiology lab at almost any other western university, the Indore Institute falls discursively and chronologically in between the two.

Discussed in much more detail in his book Cultural Boundaries of Science (see chapter 5), the Indore Institute was part of the British network of experimental stations that stretched across the empire, including a range of private (Rothamsted), government (Kew Gardens) and colonial (Central Experimental Farm) institutions. To use a Canadian comparison, Indore was a kind of combination of the Central Experimental Farm itself, its illustration stations scattered across Canada, and, to an extent, the provincial agricultural colleges. As a truth-spot, the Indore Institute served both as a quasi-extension of the imperial state and as a demonstration site for its scientific claims and agricultural practices, particularly around wheat and, importantly, cotton.

A generation older than the Indore Institute, the Central Experimental Farm also exists in the liminal space between field stations and laboratories (what Robert Kohler has evocatively called Landscapes and Labscapes). Established explicitly not as an agricultural college, on the American state and Canadian provincial models, but as a research station inspired by European antecedents, the Central Experimental Farm derives its authority both from its intensely specific placedness on land acquired in Concession B, Rideau Front, of Carleton County's Nepean Township  during the late summer of 1886 and the ability of research on that land to transcend its particulars to become universal knowledge.

For agricultural science place is particularly important. Although birds (such as geese), insects, blight and other biological threats must be controlled, one of the main factors influencing research is the soil itself. The complex geological story hidden beneath the topsoil is one of the reasons why the Central Experimental Farm is where it is.

Soil is not simply "dirt." Soil is vital. "Despite all our accomplishments we owe our existence to a six inch layer of soil." Soil is also richly varied. It comes in different colours and compositions. It has deep histories tracing the slow grinding of glaciers, the rise and fall of oceans, seas and lakes, the inhumanly slow movement of rivers. As with many invaluable resources, it forms through a process so gradual that we, subject to human scales of understanding, are often blind to it. And yet, we can destroy it in a moment.

The site selected for the Central Experimental Farm in 1886 was pieced together through purchase and expropriation from a number of landowners. It was not among the land offered by those looking to make a quick buck after the passage of the Act Respecting Experimental Stations. It also did not impress the politicians (especially those in opposition), many of whom were farmers themselves. It did, however, have a number of advantages for its scientific program, including a diversity of soil types, demonstrated on the map above.

Land that was good for commercial farming was not necessarily good for agricultural science. The opposite is also true: the characteristics that make a parcel of land appealing to scientists may be red flags for those seeking to profit from agricultural development. As a truth-spot, the vital knowledge of place at the Central Experimental Farm, accumulated over time, is key. Writing to protect the Central Experimental Farm against development threats, a scientist from Rothamsted Research recently noted his own institution's experience:
Archival evidence suggests that some 20 years after starting the original eight large-scale field experiments in the 1840s-1850s Sir John Lawes, who was personally meeting the costs, was thinking about whether to continue. However, writing in the 1880s he commented that he had found that year on year the results were becoming ever more valuable. And their value has increased immeasurably, especially in recent decades.
(Rothamsted, as a private institution, represents a different scientific culture than that which existed in Canada when the Central Experimental Farm was established. Rather than relying on the good graces of a landed gentry, the dominion and provincial governments took a leading role in establishing agricultural science through the federal experimental farms and the provincial agricultural colleges. Risks assumed by Sir John Lawes's private generosity in the United Kingdom were borne, instead and perhaps with more stability, by the state in Canada.)

In their positioning as Gierynian truth-spots, both Rothamsted and the Central Experimental Farm fit the paradox of place and truth precisely. Only through a deep understanding of their field stations, obtained through generations of scientific practice, can scientists translate the results of experiments into ever more valuable universal, or more accurately mobile, knowledge. At the same time, the very grounded facts of agriculture mean that any knowledge produced will be limited to certain conditions and applications.

For example: despite its celebrated status, Marquis wheat was not universally recommended to Canadian farmers in the 1910s. Indeed, Sir Charles Saunders--who ultimately got credit and a knighthood for the creation of Marquis--wrote to some farmers anxious to receive the miracle wheat to gently tell them that Marquis was not suited to their conditions. The different soil types at the Central Experimental Farm, alongside its regional stations and its cultivated relationship with reputable farmers through its so-called "co-operative experiments," allowed Saunders to authoritatively determine where which variety of wheat would best prosper.

Saunders's justification for sending farmers the seed he thought would succeed rather than the seed they asked for extended beyond his concern for the success or failure of individual farmers. He was concerned about the Central Experimental Farm's own legitimacy. Once preliminary work established where a given variety may succeed or fail, only those varieties that were expected to succeed under normal soil and climatic conditions of the region would be sent to farmers there. Failed crops caused by sending famous, if locally unsuitable, seed would tarnish the Farm's well cultivated reputation and authority. 

Knowledge of many particulars (of wheat, of land, of soil, of climate) was one source of authority. The ability to make that knowledge mobile (see Latour's "circulating reference") was the other. Note that Saunders and his colleagues were not seeking universal knowledge, per se, but universally applicable knowledge through an understanding of a multiplicity of local conditions (i.e. at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa, at the Indian Head Experimental Farm in Saskatchewan, around, say, Melfort also in Saskatchewan). The ability of scientists at the Central Experimental Farm to translate particular knowledge to a multitude of particular conditions is at the centre of its legitimacy

And as at Rothamsted, the steady accumulation of data at the Central Experimental Farm over the last 130 years makes it ever more relevant as a truth-spot in our current era of changing climates. 

When it was established in 1886, the Central Experimental Farm was, while firmly "in the vicinity of the seat of government" as its enabling legislation required, located well beyond Ottawa's then meagre urban boundaries. By the late 1920s, the city had grown first to the border of the Farm, and then began to outflank it in the west leading to a number of pressures on its agricultural scientific programs.

This has come to a head at various points over its history, from the petty theft of fruit, trees and flowers (though never quite on the scale as what happened to the Montreal Botanic Garden in 1981) to outright demands of land for roads and buildings. The most successful was the loss of ~220 acres to create the oddly named 'Central Park' suburban neighbourhood in the 1990s and early 2000s. The most recent threat comes from the Ottawa Hospital, which has been actively eying the land since 2007 and getting increased traction since 2014 (of which I have written before).

If nineteenth century rural MPs looked upon the lands of the Central Experimental Farm with askance, some of its (relatively speaking) new urban neighbours have shown even less understanding and sympathy.

The Central Experimental Farm's role as a truth-spot in agricultural science is not always legible to those who only know it from the window of their cars as they drive around or through it. A relative paucity of information about the research currently underway, perhaps as a result of the first half of Gieryn's paradox--the contrived placelessness of the laboratory paradigm remains firmly entrenched--makes the Farm an easy target for those seeking to erase its historic and ongoing importance to Canada's agricultural science program.

To put it simply, the Central Experimental Farm needs to reinforce its legitimacy beyond the scientific community. The techniques used to create scientific authority don't necessarily work against those who blind themselves to these arguments. Indeed, it was no accident the Ottawa Hospital did not, and does not plan to, seek public input on its site selection process. It is part of a documented strategy.

We are not without hope. The Coalition to Protect the Central Experimental Farm is an active group of advocates for the Farm's heritage, green space, and science (Facebook and Twitter). The Greenspace Alliance, part of the Coalition, is also inserting itself into the discourse with a frequently updated website.

Nonetheless, to paraphrase Gieryn's point on the role of and threats faced by buildings, the Central Experimental Farm can stabilize forms of some social life (not just science but also unstructured recreation and other benefits I haven't touched on here), but it is always vulnerable to bulldozers and discourse.

*(There is, of course, a different path to unfold this paradox along. But Plato's distinction knowledge and opinion isn't completely relevant here--but, as a humanities grad should, I think it might be more relevant than one might think.)