A few days ago I wrote about large-scale farming in northern Montana, a highly automated operation that is reminiscent of industrial manufacturing processes. Hi-tech machinery, complex chemistry and advanced breeds of grain are necessary ingredients of this kind of agribusiness. What you can see there is the result of a long process of optimization for one specific goal, the yield per acre.
Yet productivity and efficiency are only a part of the equation. Our dietary requirements go far beyond having “enough” to eat. We are looking for healthy foods, free of potentially dangerous chemicals, that taste good and can be grown in a way that leaves the land intact. Enter the world of sustainable agriculture.
“Sustainable” is not a single, precisely defined way of farming. The word describes the common aspect of a multitude of approaches, something that has been defined as “economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially acceptable”.
Traveling throughout Montana I was lucky to meet the operators of a farm that tries to accomplish just that. Victoria Werner and her partner Elan Love run Deluge Farm, a small outfit on Camas Prairie that sticks to the principles of organic farming. At only twenty acres it is diminishingly small compared to the industrial-size farms on the Hi-Line that I wrote about in the previous post. Only a little over an acre is used for growing vegetables, the rest is reserved for raising sheep, chickens and turkey.
When they moved from Ohio, where they had studied at Oberlin College, to Montana, Victoria and Elan brought lots of enthusiasm – and very little experience in organic farming. They asked local farmers about the conditions of the soil and about irrigation. They bought books and searched the Internet for information and tips. Keeping cost down (their only help is a few students who spend the summer on the farm in return for room and board) and living frugally, they now manage to get by on the farm’s revenue after a few hard years.
On Deluge Farm, there is no heavy machinery. The plants grown here get touched only by human hands. Some of vegetables grow out in the open, some in a greenhouse that Elan designed and built himself. However, not all experiments turn out well. Early on, Victoria and Elan built a cold storage room that was insulated with wool from their own sheep. Seemed like a great idea: cheap, good insulation (nature-proven, so to speak), recyclable and locally grown. It turned that all kinds of bugs also liked the coziness of this kind of insulation. Eventually they had to replace the wool by sheets of styrofoam.
Besides growing produce, small farms like this face another problem: distribution. Whatever grows on Deluge Farm is sold by Victoria and Elan on farmers’ markets. The market in Hot Springs is the closest one at a distance of about 17 miles. It’s a small market with only a few customers, and due the generally meager incomes of Hot Springs residents prices are low. The farmers’ market in Missoula is far more attractive in both volume sold and prices. Yet it is 80 miles away, meaning three hours of driving back and forth. While it is ecomically viable to sell there, it certainly isn’t in terms of enviromental impact, even though they use a hybrid engine car for the ride. Large-scale farms with their highly optimized delivery systems are at an advantage in this respect.
The issue is how to combine the advantages of high-yield, industrial farming with those of small-scale, sustainable methods. Even agriculture, which has developed more than 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia, leaves some questions open today.
“Five hundred”, Jason Wanken said. “OK, and the price?”, I asked. Again the reply was “Five hundred”. I was sitting in the buddy seat of a combine that had a 500 hp engine and cost around US$ 500,000. An impressive machine that replaces hundreds of farmhands.
Up here on Montana’s Hi-Line, the stretch of land around the Great Northern Railway line, bigger is better. When settlers were lured here in the early 20th century, they could claim up to 320 acres in exchange for farming the land for three years and building a house. Soon it became clear that this wasn’t enough to feed a family, and a process of concentration set in. Today, the average farm size is more than 3,000 acres.
Wanken’s family farms some 5,000 acres, most of it wheat. He and his brother own three big combines, which allows for quick harvests at just the right time and gives them enough capacity to do some custom cutting in addition to harvesting their own crop. The downside is that all the equipment they have binds a lot of capital.
The ride in the combine was actually quite comfortable. Air-conditioning, a filter system against the outside dust, noise insulation and a nice stereo system help create a relaxed atmosphere. So does the computer that controls the machine. With the help of a GPS receiver it automatically steers the combine to within a foot, so there will be no overlap between tracks and no wheat will be left uncut. I have seen some farmers who got so bored on their combines that they played with their cell phones all the time, texting friends and family. Every time the grain tank is full a semi truck drives alongside the combine and the grain is unloaded while the cutting continues.
This process is so efficient that a farmer can run a 5,000 acre farm with only the occasional help of his wife and a truck driver at harvest time. As a consequence, there are not many farm jobs left, which is one of the reasons young people are leaving the area. Towns like Shelby, Chester, Inverness and Rudyard suffer from declining populations. Some of the towns were forced to consolidate their schools as the diminishing numbers of students didn’t justify individual ones any more.
While it was customary to grow wheat in a field one year and then let it lie dormant for the next, crop rotation or crop sequencing is gaining traction among Hi-Line farmers. Especially field peas and lentils have proven to put nitrogen back into the soil and break the lifecycle of wheat pathogens, insects and weeds. Columbia Grain International (CGI) operates a highly automated plant in Tiber where peas and lentils are cleaned, sorted and packaged ready for shipment by train.
The railway that originally made the Hi-Line what it is proves to be a limiting factor today. For long stretches it only has a single track, making it hard to manage trains of different speeds or directions. In the mountainous western part of the line that eventually goes to Portland and Seattle, a long tunnel that needs to be ventilated for three quarters of an hour between train passes is a severe bottleneck. Most of the limited capacity of this railway system is used by long rows of freight cars that carry oil and natural gas from the Bakken Shale, a highly productive deposit in North Dakota and the eastern part of Montana, to the West Coast. Says Mike Backen, who manages the CGI pea and lentil plant,”Often when I order twenty railway cars for our products, I get only three. The oil companies simply pay much more than we can”.
A major factor in assessing the price of a crop, be it wheat, barley, lentils, peas or any other, is its quality. Quality can be determined by many factors, including the amount of mechanical damage (for example by hard rain or hail), the amount of weed seeds contained in the harvest and the content of nutrients. The Montana State Grain Lab in Great Falls is the officially licensed testing facility in the state. Farmers and trading companies have their crop analyzed here, as well as insurance companies to validate crop damage related claims. A group of experts perform a multitude of tests, ranging from measuring protein content and falling numbers of wheat to determining the percentage of damaged peas in a shipment.
A lot of us don't know anymore where our food comes from and how it is processed. Seeing firsthand how much science, technology, money and effort go into producing something as seemingly simple as bread was eye-opening and fascinating.
Today, exactly thirteen years after the attacks on New York City's World Trade Center, I remembered a photo I took in 1994. It was a beautiful June day and I was on the Staten Island Ferry, mainly to enjoy the view of this vibrant and exciting city.
While the ferry was pulling away from Manhattan, I noticed a young man leaning on the railing, glancing back at the island in a contemplative mood. I quickly raised my Leica, set the aperture so the background would be out of focus yet still showing enough detail to be recognizable, and tripped the shutter.
Seven years later, the tragic events of 9/11 changed the meaning of that picture forever.
Just in time for the world's largest photography fair, Photokina, which is to begin on September 16, the PhotoBookMuseum in Cologne, Germany, opened its doors. The museum is located in the Carlswerk, a former copper wire factory, and has lots of space. Check out their website.
At the opening of the museum, two photographers gave presentations in the reading room, a small section of a former factory hall seperated from the busy exhibition space.
The first was Carolyn Drake, whom I knew from a National Geographic article on China's Uygurs. She showed some amazingly interesting work she had done with the Lubavitchers of Brooklyn, NY. Carolyn makes a very modest, unpretentious appearance, which I'm sure has helped her a lot in getting access to a rather closed group like this. And she really got very close, as you can see from her pictures here. In her talk she reminded us that some societies have rules that seem somewhat strange to an outsider, yet begin to make sense as soon as you get more insight into the group. I have had that same experience many times on my travels, most recently when I spent some time in a Hutterite colony in northern Montana, a society that seems strange from the perspective of mainstream Western culture yet immediately reveals its merits if and when the visitor enters with an open mind.
Carolyn proceeded with great photographs from her book Two Rivers. Be warned, though: the book is out of print. After the presentation I was eager to buy a copy, but had to learn it is no longer available. The good news is that she is working on a new book which should be equally interesting. We will learn the details in a few weeks.
Next was David Alan Harvey. I have admired David's work since the early 1990s and tried to learn from him as much as possible. Ten years ago, in the fall of 2004, I met him at a workshop in the small Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende. Apart from hearing about his experience and his work, it was simply great to watch him shoot in the streets and to see how he interacted with his subjects. Many people think a street photographer would always try to seem inconspicuous and act like the proverbial fly on the wall, but watching David work shows you a different way. In fact he tells people that he doesn't want to be that fly.
At the PhotoBookMuseum, David showed quite a few pictures from all phases of his career. It became clear that he never just developed a 'style' and stayed with it. Quite the contrary: it seems he never stops evolving. He started in B&W, moved to color later on and sometimes does B&W again today. Although known as a Leica rangefinder-carrying street photographer, he uses all kinds of equipment from an iPhone to an 8x10 view camera. Earlier photos are more descriptive or literal than later ones. Although he is 70 by now he doesn't seem to slow down.
Oh, and there is some bad news here, too: his innovative book with photographs from Rio de Janeiro, named (based on a true story), is - you guessed it - sold out.