What to do with Agricultural By-Products: An Incomplete Guide

| Emily Simek & Rose Faragher
 + Shiraz grapes after pressing at Dookie Winery , 2022.

What to do with Agricultural By-Products: An Incomplete Guide

What To Do With Agricultural By-Products: An Incomplete Guide | Emily Simek & Rose Faragher

I know I’m privileged because there’s a pumpkin rotting in my kitchen. A pool of liquid has congealed at the stem of my first homegrown pumpkin, and I’m not disappointed. Soon the seepage becomes a white velvet cap, and the pumpkin slides over to join the compost caddy. Still, I feel immensely satisfied (although I don’t mention the pumpkin at the next community garden working bee). I don’t need to eat the pumpkin to feel the pleasure of growing it as the vine fingers its way through my rental courtyard. This is why I’m a bad farmer.

Meanwhile, Rose and I stash grape marc1 in tin pots in the boot of her Mitsubishi ’95 with a plan to assess its artistic potential. We are prospecting a university farm as part of the Art + Ecology 2022 residency program. Rose is an Environmental Scientist and this gets the STEM academics onside when they read our project application:

The term waste signifies a material that is of no value, and once ‘used’ and void of practical (human) use is marginalised, repressed and outsourced for disposal. The primary framing of waste as expensive (to dispose of) and harmful (to humans) is limiting in that it does not attend to material lifecycles from post-human and new materialist perspectives.2

We forgot to write something about the tip, but it’s only now that becomes important.


The problem is that twelve months on from the residency, I’m hoarding textiles dyed with fermented grapes as Rose and I debate over Messenger about what to do with our artistic by-products. It’s that urge, I write, a kind of weighty responsibility to use said thing for somethingmore. The dyed fabric is the residue of a month-long residency that Rose and I undertook with a winery at the agricultural campus of the University of Melbourne, which is located on stolen Yorta Yorta Land in Dookie, Victoria. At Dookie I learn it’s uncomfortable when art fits too neatly into industrial systems of production.3

The question that arises is, when does the opportunistic use of ‘available’ materials (by visiting artists) become an extractive process, geared to aestheticise the end product of the agricultural enterprise? I write to Rose about the ills of late capitalism,

sometimes I think we are overly focused on finding solutions for waste, to make it into something valuable (for humans), like with grape skins—do we want to transform them into something beautiful? This transformation, through art, can in itself be an extractive process when you treat materials like resources to be used up for your benefit.

I want to resist this cycle by returning the dyed textiles to the compost heap, but there is something unsettling about my logic, which Rose points out. I imagine laying strips of purple cotton over grape skins piled in the distant yard. I picture myself at home, watching as it (quietly) rots. I am 148 minutes away from Dookie by car.

Rose replies that I can do it, but dont say its for Environmental reasons.4 This reminds me of bin night and how I benefit from landfill. Waste theory in the Global North is predicated on a ‘physical and ideological distance from waste’, or what theorist Michael Thompson describes as our striving to ‘deny its existence.’5 A point, it seems, that my local municipal council agrees with. Cultural studies researcher Lucy Bell says ‘an altogether different theory of waste might emerge if we turn our attention towards the experience of those in the global South whose existences are marked principally not by the production or disposal of waste, but rather by experiences, livelihoods and lives in/with/of waste’.6 Which leads to an uncomfortable thought: in order to open up to embodied perspectives on waste, do I first need to get into my own bin, by which I mean, live with my own peculiar waste for long enough that it’s undesirable? This might account for the mess in my studio and garden.

Which prompts the question, is there a way to locate art in relation to waste without it having to rot in the compost? I check my motives. If waste constitutes the ‘embodied practices through which we decide what is connected to us and what is not’, is the tipping point, when something is truly ‘wasted’, marked by a severing of personal connections?7 It seems pretty convenient to compost this fabric as a way to detach from a project legacy. Naturally, I’m suspicious when it comes to project outcomes (and their implied endings), so I decide against it. But this is all or nothing thinking, to which Rose replies, we have a lot of fabric, so we can probably do multiple things yeah?

Now to compost some research questions by Lucy Bell.8

How do the practices, activities and living or working conditions that bring people close to wasted things become implicated in particular forms of embodiment?

What sort of self do these conditions shape?

How do lived experiences of proximity to waste challenge the prevailing ethos of distance, denial and disposability?

Whilst I pick at waste theory, Rose wakes early to simmer dye pots. She knows how to interpret pH strips and let the sun do good work. Purple fabric is rinsed and hung out to dry, but only when she feels like it. Rose asks pointed questions like, do you think its capitalism that makes us want to make useable or decorative things or some deeper thing common to all humans? Maybe Im too materialistic, but I was thinking some cushion things could be nice to make and give to Mum.

 + Repurposed cotton textile dyed with fermented grapes , 2022.

We pose this question to the other workers: bees that suck pulp from mounds and ants that lick syrup from bundles that stain our driveway. One afternoon, Rose and I take photos of bees slurping sugar from Shiraz on the vine. I observe how our practices are overlapping. Now I see, ‘the more something is shared, the greater its value becomes’.9

Meanwhile, the pumpkin on my bench isn’t decomposing, it’s growing. But just how long can you observe mould advance on a pumpkin before needing to move it on, for health and safety reasons? And is it food waste if the pumpkin feeds someone/thing else?

Capitalist logic says yes, that wasted pumpkin should be conveniently relocated! But I prefer this story, told by Deborah Bird Rose. Whilst foraging for conkerberries, her companion Jessie Wirrapa reflects on the food left behind; 'turkey will eat ‘im, emu might eat ‘im, dingo can eat ‘im too, even goanna might eat ‘im.'10 Which leads me to question, who is invited to my table? I check in with the red wigglers in the compost bin on this point.

I’m trying to work out where we fit into the industry guidelines on waste management.11 I decide in order to better understand the mechanism of a factory line, I will become one. I start producing hats. I take up Sarah Poulgrain’s public invitation to collaborate in un Magazine Issue 16.2.12 In Hat Making Poulgrain published a set of instructions for how to sew a wide brimmed hat. I like this work because it circumvents copyright issues. It’s anti-mass production, but it is an invitation for masses to produce (a hat in this instance). It makes me think, what happens when you consensually co-opt an art project? Is this what Poulgrain is inviting us to do by writing ‘THESE CENTRE PAGES CAN BE PULLED OUT TO MAKE A HAT.’ I like to think of Hat Making as a pattern for the collectivisation of site-specific agricultural projects. I think that it’s not the material but the skills that I will repurpose.

I email friends I met through the residency and offer to send material and instructions. But it turns out no one wants to sew hats, which holds a lesson. No one size (hat) fits all, I write. Rose replies, I think most people dont have the time/motivation/skills/equipment to make hats, but its an interesting idea. Hat making isn’t too different to Environmental Science after all. When Rose gets back, we can see about making that cushion for her Mum.


1. Grape marc or pomace is the solid remains of grapes after pressing — the pulp, skins, seeds, and stems. We collect it in buckets, alongside sloppy fermentation lees and tartaric acid salts.

2. Excerpt from written application to the Art + Ecology residency program, Centre of Visual Art [CoVA], 2021.

3. It’s that moment at the Dookie farewell morning tea when all smiles, Rose and I are genuinely thanked for our engagement and novel material findings, which brings about a strange mix of happiness and mild terror. I can equate this feeling to when, in my other professionalised work, I’ve come up with a particularly clever ‘creative’ solution that addresses the ‘what’ rather than the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of a problem. In other words, complex organisations, such as a university or agricultural farm, have a strong operational drive towards existent workflows, and they like art. It is therefore least disruptive when art functions within the logic of these existent workflows, including streams in waste management. Disclaimer: I do not believe natural dyeing with fermented grapes will be popularised as an add-on enterprise to the winemaking industry, so if not to solve the waste problem, what’s my real KPI?

4. Putting fabric into compost is probably more detrimental to the environment than using it for something, in relation to the resources and energy used to make the fabric, for it to just break down and then emit CO2 or methane in the process of decomposition, Rose replies.

5. Lucy Bell, “Place, people and processes in waste theory: a global South critique,” Cultural Studies 33, no. 1 (2019): 114; Michael Thompson, Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 20.

6. As a white person living in a colonial, rich-nation context, I am part of a privileged ‘majority of trash thinkers [who can] focus on certain people (consumers) at the expense of others (those who live on, off, or with waste). Bell, "Place, people and processes in waste theory: a global South critique," 101.

7. Gay Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006), 4.

8. I like when authors co-opt other authors questions. In this case, Lucy Bell, who published the aforementioned research topics as an inverse form of those by waste theorist Gay Hawkins, whose original questions assume a separation between humans and their discards in wealthy nation contexts. I’m currently working on another iteration in my personal diary. Bell, "Place, people and processes in waste theory: a global South critique," 114; Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish, 16.

9. On wild strawberries and the gift economy, Potawatomi woman Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, ‘that is the fundamental nature of gifts: they move, and their value increases with their passage… The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes.’ Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teach- ings of Plants (Penguin Books, 2020), 27.

10. Deborah Bird Rose, “Decolonizing the Discourse of Environmental Knowledge in Settler Societies,” in Culture and Waste: the Creation and Destruction of Value, eds. Gay Hawkins and Stephen Muecke (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2002), 71.

11. “Winemaking Practices,” Australian Wine Research Institute, accessed 6 July 2023, https://www.awri.com.au/indus- try_support/winemaking_resources/winemaking-practices.

12. Sarah Poulgrain, “Hat Making,” un Magazine 16.2, A Collection of Annotated Bibliographies Vol. 2 (2022): 58-70.

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