In vino veritas, in aqua lucrum: Farmland investment, environmental uncertainty, and groundwater access in California’s Cuyama Valley

Madeleine Fairbairn, Jim LaChance, Kathryn Teigen De Master, Loka Ashwood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


This paper explores the relationship between farmland investment and environmental uncertainty. It examines how farmland investors seek to “render land investible” (Li, Trans Inst Br Geographers 39:589–602, 2014) in spite of drought, groundwater depletion, and changing regulations. To do so, we analyze a single case study: the purchase of 8000 acres of dry rangeland in California’s Cuyama Valley by the Harvard University endowment for use in creating an irrigated vineyard. Drawing from interviews with Cuyama Valley farmers and community members, participant observation at community meetings, and public document analysis, we make two primary contributions to understandings of uncertain resource materiality in farmland investment. First, this case reveals that investors can turn environmental uncertainty into an advantage, exploiting both the temporal uncertainties associated with resource management under climate change and the spatial uncertainties inherent to all subsurface resources. We argue that the material and legal uncertainties of groundwater access provide investors with a potentially lucrative opening to assert their preferred land imaginaries and improve their property values. In the Cuyama Valley they did so through both participation in groundwater governance and the establishment of water-related infrastructure on their property. Second, this case highlights that the asset-making processes involved in farmland investment may be as much vertical as they are horizontal. The need to map and measure the uncertain vertical dimension of land creates an outsized role for scientific expertise in farmland assetization.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)285-299
Number of pages15
JournalAgriculture and Human Values
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, Springer Nature B.V.


  • Assetization
  • Climate change
  • Environmental uncertainty
  • Farmland
  • Financialization
  • Groundwater

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agronomy and Crop Science


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