This dissertation investigates the significance of soil in distinguishing various forms of urban agriculture (UA) in San Diego County. Once dominated by traditional “soil-based” community gardens, UA is increasingly joined by technologically-advanced “soilless” growing methods like hydroponic, aquaponic, and aeroponic. These farming approaches embody different urban political economies and ecologies and engage unique, locally articulated networks of human and non-human actors that shape the way food is planted, grown, harvested, marketed, desired and consumed in the city. This research aims to uncover and examine these differences as they relate to justice, specifically the narratives, practices, and relationships that are deployed in the making of “just” urban agricultural commodities. I begin by examining how UA organizations discuss their practices in online discourse. Then, using a selection of soilless and soil-based UA projects that emphasize social justice in this discourse, I compare the material relations that promote or inhibit their justice practices. Finally, using the same subset of projects, I examine the way food justice “commodities” are materially and discursively produced through the placed networks that support their commodity circuits.
To examine these distinctions, I use mixed methods, integrating topic modelling, mapping, and multi-locale ethnographic analysis using US Census, website content, interview, and participant observation data. To guide my investigation and interpret my findings, I use a robust theoretical framework that combines urban political ecology, economic geography, and Actor-Network Theory. The results illustrate that while the way food is grown is an important factor for UA organization’s identity and practices, it is but one among the many factors that influence justice such as socio-spatial context. Justice is an ongoing process that is built from the ground up and evolves as UA commodities travel through their commodity circuits and interact with placed networks filled with intentions, actions, discourses, objects, actors, and forces. If we want to understand and enact justice, we have to look at this entire process of circulation – the discursive and material, the intentions and the actions, the human and non-human – to see the opportunities, possibilities, and vulnerabilities of justice.