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Feeding the Beast, Feeding Ourselves

Spring arrived a bit late this year in the Berkshires. Haven’t lived here long enough to gauge whether such a delay is connection to global weather changes or if belated seasonal change is simply natural in western Massachusetts.

Either way, while dumping buckets of aged horse shit into the fields recently behind the barn, it caused to ponder about farmers I’ve had the honor to meet and photograph over the years.

Farmer John, dropping buckets of manure in the fields next to the studio, located in barn on Dancing Fields Organic Farm. Photograph by Richard Stanmeyer

It also reminded to get this years crop in the ground soonest or else loose more time trying to feed this beast called a blog — albeit an enjoyable beast to wrestle on a near weekly basis.

I’ve spend much time with famers across this amazing spinning ball we all call home, however some farmers really stood out, leaving an impression residing deep each time I eat a meal.

Living literally in the middle of a ricefield for five years in Bali, nearly all my neighbors were farmers. Each morning, next door neighbor, Bapak Made, would head out to plant, inspect, harvest or just enjoy a romp through his fields.

My neighbor, Bapak Made, heading through the terraces to his ricefield located behind our old home in Bali.

On one occasion for the book, Island of the Spirits, I wandered through the terraces with Bapak Made to attend a ceremony at a small temple in his field called a Pura Ulun Siwi, erected and placed in its specific location for one equally specific reason — for giving thanks towards a bountiful harvest and giving respect to the god of earth.

Bapak Made preparing to pray as be decorates his Pura Ulun Siwi or water temple in his ricefield.

Such moments always gave cause to rethink how fragile we are regarding the ability to feed ourselves, especially in a time when many young children in cities haven’t a clue what a tomato is or that french fries are actually potatoes.

Take a moment and watch this except of chef Jamie Oliver as he asks a classroom of 1st grade students what the name is of red veggies he was holding:

Alarming, isn’t it.

I met Jason Hinson while working on the End of Plenty story for National Geographic. He’s one of those fellas you immediately connect with. A true salt of the earth type. Felt as if I’d known him my whole life yet at the time had simply wandered over to his John Deere combine and asked if I could ride with him while he harvested thousands of ears of corn. For the record, Jason’s Deere could eat my 3320 Deere like an olive.

He was working the fields in Kingston, Iowa.

Jason Hinson, a fourth generation farmer, drives his combine as he harvests over 100 acres of corn.

Working insanely long hours, Jason Hinson with his amazingly massive combine harvesting corn. That Deere can move.

Jason was kind enough to let this giddy wannabe farmer pilot his mammoth Deere. It was astonishingly simple to drive with control and speed like a Mercedes Benz. No wonder these machines cost more than an average house.

This wannabe farmer, harvesting corn with Hinson's combine which felt more like piloting a spaceship deftly through a Milkyway of ears. Photograph by Jason Hinson

Life as a farmer anywhere on earth is never unchallenging. It had been a difficult year in 2008 for Midwestern farmers. Many had lost their crop when the Mississippi River overflowed it’s banks due to unusually heavy rains further north.

All this area of Oakville, Iowa, tens of thousands of acres of corn and wheat grew until a levy broke, sending the Mighty Mississippi River across farmland and ruing lives. 1.3 million acres of grain was lost, sending feed and food prices across the globe through the roof. It also didn't help that a surge in biofuels was also taking place about the same time — when food is used as fuel, the effect on prices can be staggering.

This use to be the road leading to their house and farm, but in 2008, Brian, Cindy and Colt Wiegand had to use a boat while surveying the damage to their crops, barn and home.

Seems farmers in America are equally affected by climate change as they are in Bangladesh or the plains of northern Kenya where the exact opposite plays out but with deadly consequences.

Drought.

Low crop yields in developing nations are a primary cause of world hunger, and low crop yields are connected to severe weather pattern change taking effect across the planet, especially in the Horn of Africa.

Dust storm caused by severe drought in 2008 hits Mabaalea village, a remote Afari encampment located in Teru district in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia.

When camels die from thirst and lack of food, one can only imagine the effects on the human population.

I met Momina Mohammed, 34, while she was trying to nurse her 8 month old son, Ali Mohammed. He was suffering from severely acute malnourished in an Eritrean refugee camp in Suola near the Eritrean border in northeastern Ethiopia. Momina hadn't been able to eat properly for months, causing her breast milk to stop. It didn't help that she too was malnourished, unable to afford the global rising costs of food. Before heading back to Addis Ababa, I wandered all over a nearby market hoping to find baby formula. Amazingly, I found two tins. Momina was very pleased but unfortunately I have no idea about the fate of Ali once leaving.

Spending a few days with Jason and his friend, Chad Kuntz, was a reminder of how dependent our entire food supply is to so few who actually still work the land.

In the United States, less than 1% of the population are farmers.

Farmer Chad Kuntz with one of his three daughters while harvesting corn in Oakville, Iowa.

Not that long ago, we were all farmers. Few complained about the long hours and hard work. Such labor had it’s rewards — survival.

These days we naturally want more.

For the last few decades — along with the foreseeable future to come —  our entire existence relies on the hardworking hands of Jason, Made, Chad and a dwindling number of others who understand the brilliance of planting a seed, reaping the benefits of something we often can take for granted.

I recognize that not everyone can be a farmer. It’s physically impossible as well as impractical. Even for our family, less than one acre of organic vegitables and 30 hens for organic eggs is a labor, though fortunately a labor of love.

Francesca, 3, with a new baby chick bring the Stanmeyer brew to over 30 on the farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. By the way, the eggs are astonishing from these lovely ladies. Just ask my friend and VII colleague, Franco Pagetti, who cooks an amazing Pagetti-style omelet whenever he visits. May, 2011

One difficulty we’re facing is not the lack of open land in say, New York City, to grow food for the entire population of the greatest city on earth. The problem…where there is land to grow, so few in developed nations are willing to work it.

While driving around Mississippi two weeks ago,  I was listening to a story on NPR about foreign workers. A Georgia farmer could not find locals in his town who would be willing to work the harvest season. Even at $200 per day (or around $25 per hour, three times more than working at a fast food joint), the only ones willing to work were migrants who are desperate for a job in order to feed their own families back home. Astonishing yet understandable when Xbox’es and 300+ television channels are so conveniently gobbling up our time and minds.

An even greater obstacle to overcome in order to be able to feed the human population; Changing how we use of land which is already being farmed.

Too much is now being diverted to biofuels, taking good soil and land away from our bellies and into the tanks of our automobiles.

 

Steam belches out from a furnace while trucks carrying corn for processing into ethanol arrive and trains wait to leave with liquid ethanol from the POET Biorefining plant in Gowrie, Iowa.

The Amazon Rainforest is being clearcut to make way for even more farmland in order to grow soybeans for the global rising demand in meat.

Deforestation in the upper Mato Grosso state of the Amazon west of Juara city where farmers are burning ancient rainforests to make way for more farmland to raise cattle and soybeans.

None of this tractor-pondering is revolutionary. Nor is there just one single factor related to significant problems we’re facing.

However it is monumental when you consider that the present way we use our arable land is simply not going to yield enough food unless we radically change the way we work the land, getting more engaged in regards to how our food is grown and ease up on food waste — one-third or 1.3 billion tons of food goes wasted each year.

In a few weeks time our population will reach 7 billion.

By 2050, 9 billion.

How will we feed ourselves?

Having feed The Beast, next to feed the chickens and water the garden in hopes to feed the family with a simple but needed harvest in the months to come.

 

 

 

NOTE: To read some fascinating insight about our food supply, the environment and a host of other related illumination, read Dennis Dimick’s blog, Signs from Earth.

4 comments

1 K. Agung Patriadi { 06.02.11 at 21:47 }

I really like the picture of you (dropping buckets of manure) when you become a farmer, very inspiring, I salute, a very wonderful life Mr. John and happy with nature. You could be a good example for our young photographers around the world. I hope I can follow your workshop in Bali later. :)

2 Andie Masela { 06.03.11 at 01:44 }

nice work Mr.John u realy be insperation for me.good job,keep spirit Mr.John…:)

3 shafket { 06.10.11 at 08:09 }

Sir , great work. simply great….. i don’t know much about photography, but i can’t leave my eyes from the pictures. thanks for such a nice work. may god bless you……….

4 The Amazing Yellow Border Magazine – Part I — John Stanmeyer { 06.30.11 at 11:58 }

[...] written a bit about this story a few weeks ago from the perspective of a fellow farmer and our collective global connectivity. [...]

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