From the Good Earth:
A Photo Essay of Traditional Agriculture Around the World
In the 1980s, on a quest to understand the regionally-adapted ways in which traditional agriculture is able to feed people while tending the health of the land, Michael Ableman set out, along with legendary environmentalist on a journey to photograph agrarian cultures around the world to learn the “ valuable information [they had] for modern destructive society.” Legendary environmentalist David Brower was a key supporter of the project and traveled with Michael to the Russian Far East and Mongolia. A master photographer and author of four books on the relationships between food, land, people and culture, Michael is, most of all, a great farmer who considers himself, even after 44 years of farming, “a beginner.” In this photo essay, Michael reflects back on that journey and some of the photographs that appeared in his first book From The Good Earth, A Celebration of Growing Food Around the World.
All photos are copyrighted and cannot be distributed, reproduced, or reused in any way without the explicit permission of the photographer (Michael Ableman).
Photos are from these books authored by Michael Ableman: Fields of Plenty: A Farmer’s Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It, From the Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food Around the World, and Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope on the Urban Frontier.
This article is a transcribed, edited excerpt of a conversation with Michael Ableman
MICHAEL ABLEMAN: By the early 1980s, I had already been farming for a while, and I was interested in understanding more about this 7,000-year tradition I’d stepped into, considering myself, as I still do today after 44 years, a beginner. I was interested in what the lineage is and whose shoulders I’m standing on. At the same time, I was fascinated with the idea of hiking in the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world.
On the way there, I stopped to see a friend who was living and working in China and ended up in the city of Xindu. In those days, there weren’t a lot of foreign visitors in China and visiting rural areas was not something that was encouraged, but I was curious, so I walked for hours on the outskirts of the city on a path that led up a hill, and what I saw was remarkable. There was a vast network of fields being farmed by multigenerational families—kids with their parents and grandparents and, in some cases, even their great grandparents. Those fields had been farmed the same way, over and over, for thousands of years, and yet still appeared fertile and productive without the use of industrial methods. The thought struck me: “How is it possible? There were places near where I was farming in California where the land had been made useless after just a single decade.” I thought it was incredible, and I began photographing feverishly.
This image exemplifies the ability the Chinese had, at that time (1983), to feed a billion people on only 11% of their land base using the techniques that had been passed down since the Han dynasty. It is a highly intensive system.
When I returned home from that journey, I was on fire with curiosity. I was young and fearless at that point of my life (neither of which I am now). I was intensely curious, and I was completely amazed and fascinated at the possibility that the profession I had chosen had a deep-rooted, vast, indigenous knowledge and history. I wanted to learn from it, and I wanted to understand how the work I was doing related to these other cultures that had been doing it for thousands of years.
But it wasn’t some sort of romantic quest for a mythic golden age; I wasn’t that stupid. I knew that the places, people and situations that I was looking at were also fraught with challenges and problems. It was more of an intense desire to learn and to record what I was seeing. I spent another winter in China because it was the oldest traditional agriculture in the world. I thought there was no better place to start exploring.
This two-acre onion field was being watered by hand. It was fascinating–like watching a well-choreographed dance. The equipment, which seems so rudimentary, is really well made, and the process is extremely balanced. The man was using both containers at the same time. I watched the entire thing and what was really profound is that two men using watering buckets could irrigate a two-acre field in about two hours without a word spoken. They both were in their 70s and had enormous physical strength, but what I saw was less about physical exertion and more about careful planning and balance. There was a great calm about the whole experience. It was a beautiful, silent dance.
I spent the entire next winter in the Andes in terraced fields built by the Incas that were so steep that farmers were known to fall out of them.
Capturing this image was a three-day process in order to get the lighting right. It gave me a lot of respect for Ansel Adams who would sit and wait for days just to make one frame.
I also traveled to East and Central Africa to try to catch a glimpse of the remnants of the few traditionally agrarian tribes that were still there. Pastoralists were dominant in those regions, but there were some really interesting examples of agrarian people making their own tools and doing some pretty cool stuff.
This photo was taken in the mountains of Burundi at the market in a little town called Ijenda where I lived for a while. The sorghum that the women are working with is made into a slightly fermented drink that’s sipped communally out of a common gourd with straws cut from a local tree. At the time, it was a very popular drink, but you would never see somebody sitting at home alone drinking it. It was a communal and social experience.
There’s an energy to this image of the women, a kind of excitement and enthusiasm around what’s happening. It’s a swirl of color and energy.
There was, at times, a tendency for me to romanticize the experiences I was having with the people I was visiting and sometimes to project my own ideas onto what I was seeing, feeling and experiencing as I was photographing them, but I had to keep all that in check.
People are basically just trying to survive, but the simplicity of some of those farming systems and the long history of those people on the land hold valuable information for modern destructive society.
The Moroccan markets are just incredible. I love the visual perspective of the passing of feet, the colorful clothing, the robes that people were wearing, and the vendor on the ground selling citrus and other items.
After Africa, I went to Southern Europe to Sicily and other places where I could photograph remnants of the traditional agriculture of that region.
In this image of an Italian olive merchant, you can see the diversity of olive varieties. There is also a diversity in the ways that olives were prepared, which is an almost lost art, but one that is coming back.
Traveling in Italy, I saw olive and carob trees that were four to five thousand years old growing wrapped around each other. The planting together was intentional because the carob is a legume that fixes nitrogen and feeds the olive tree.
Those ancient, long-term perennial systems are some of the most interesting to me because I’ve always believed that the fundamental structure of a farm has to be the perennial. The perennials have to be the anchor on the farm on many different levels—holding soil, creating habitat, reducing the churning of the ground, providing shade, etc. The folks in Italy know so much about all of that, as well as the importance of having a lot of diversity in their cultivars.
This image is from the Russian far east near Ulan-Ude in East Siberia. It’s so emblematic of the time: the style of dress, the soldiers and the seriousness with which people reflect on their cabbages.
David Brower had invited me to go to the Russian far east to Baikal the year I turned 40 (27 years ago). He had just turned 80. David had a longtime interest in Lake Baikal in Siberia because it is the oldest, deepest and largest body of freshwater on the planet with species that don’t exist anywhere else. David felt that it was one of the planet’s critical ecological cornerstones that needed to be preserved.
It was an extremely hard trip—long flights followed by long train trips. Transportation was not terribly functional. Food was not good; in fact, it was awful. When we eventually got to Ulan-Ude on Lake Baikal, David said to me, “Michael, I want to go to the Mongolian side of Baikal.”
So, we went down to the Mongolian consulate in Ulan-Ude and they said, “You’ve got to be kidding. You should have started six months ago to get that visa; there’s no possibility.” David had written two autobiographies, and he had one of them with him; I asked him to give it to me. There’s a page in that book with him and the Dalai Lama arm-in-arm with big smiles, so I opened it up to that page and I slid it on the table over to the consular agent. Then things happened fast. We got the visas right away. The agent even phoned and got us a ride in an ambulance. It was a hellish trip, super hard but super interesting.
The ambulance could only take us so far, so we took a train to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. As we were standing on the train platform, a drunk guy came right up to my face and out of the blue for no reason punched me as hard as he could in the stomach and put me out onto the ground.
After that, I decided to take a taxi to the marketplace, which is miles up above the city. I began photographing what was quite an incredible scene, but I didn’t realize that I shouldn’t have been there. A gang of young people chased me and pelted me with rocks; I barely got the hell out of there.
I began to realize that photographing those different cultures could be interpreted as appropriation of ideas, information and images that I could never really understand because I wasn’t from those places, and that would be a reasonable criticism. I questioned myself. I heard about people in various parts of the world who thought that taking their photographs was akin to stealing their spirits. Some Western people would laugh at that idea, but I began to believe that there may be some truth to it. Was I stealing the spirits of the people that I was photographing?
But I felt what I was doing was fundamentally different. I was not a journalist or photojournalist. I didn’t step out of my office at The New York Times and fly off to some remote place. My daily work for most of the year was using my hands to grow food for my own community. Everywhere I went, I carried in my back pocket a little booklet of photographs of my farm and of me out in my fields. I thought that was critical because I shared a connection to the land and a shared interest in farming with the people I was taking photos of. Mind you, some people were farming from pure personal survival perspectives, some were farming to feed more than themselves. I was farming for both reasons, to feed my family and as a livelihood.
But the common thread was farming; that was a bridge. I’m sure I made mistakes, but I feel like that gave me a valid reason to be doing what I was doing. Often, when people see the portraits I made of other farmers, they comment that in many of the photos the farmers are looking into the camera, and you can see that there was a relationship there. Those images could not have been made without some connection. When I say relationship, I don’t mean that I was living with them or that I spent weeks there, but there was some sort of commonality established before the camera got pulled out.
I never made a photograph of anyone without first developing even just the briefest of relationships. David Brower, who was involved in this project from its inception, said at a public event, “Notice how people in Michael’s photographs are connecting to the person behind the camera.”
There’s a sister image to this, which is of our friend Caroline, a Hopi elder, whom we spent a lot of years with at Hotevilla-Bacavi on Third Mesa in Arizona. Why would I be mentioning her in the context of this Karen tribesman? At the entrance of Hotevilla, there were hand-painted signs saying “no photographing, no drawing, no recording, no filming.” I was always very respectful of that, but in time Caroline gave me the permission to take some photographs of her, also winnowing beans. She had an amazing collection of bean seeds. When the time came for the book to be published, I knew there was no way I could use an image of her without her explicit permission.
So, I showed her a series of different images, and she said, you can use one of them if it’s next to the one of the Karen people winnowing beans. She understood acutely that there was a relationship that existed between Indigenous people all over the world, and she wanted to be thought of in relationship to that.
I took this photo in Todos Santos in the mountains of Guatemala, a little village where we spent a month living with a local family. This is a man on his way to the market outside an old church to sell his wares. The entire village, at that time, was made up of widowed mothers, children and old people. Inside the church where the market was held, the walls were riddled with bullet holes because all of the young men of that village were herded into the church during the civil war and murdered there.
This picture was taken looking south. Directly to my back, to the north, would have been Trump’s steel wall. We guard the borders and build fences and walls to keep out the very people whose hands are doing all the work to grow our food. We’re talking about people who risk their lives to make that journey. The craziest damn stories: being put in a refrigerated truck for hours and hours, stuffed into trunks of cars, all kinds of crazy shit to do the work in service industries, restaurants, factories and farms, that most Americans will no longer do. It’s an absurd situation, and it’s heartbreaking to see what people have to go through to survive.
Hilario slipped over the border in his late teens as an “illegal” farm worker and eventually became a farm owner employing 100 people with a very successful farming operation. It’s one of those rare but important stories to tell because, historically, people like Hilario are not celebrated for their contributions. He’s an exceptional farmer.
I wrote the book The Good Earth: A Celebration of Growing Food Around the World based on these journeys, but when I completed those incredible international visits recording those traditional cultures, I realized that, in a sense, I had been looking at the remnants of where agriculture has come from. I felt that I should also look at what’s happening now and what we are moving towards in the future, so, I delved into the hardest images that I made, the ones of industrial agriculture in California’s Central Valley, the largest feedlot in the world. I went up in helicopters that spray pesticides and did all sorts of crazy shit just to get striking visual examples of industrial agriculture for people who were unaware of the scale of its impact and devastation. I thought if they could see it, maybe they’d want to do something about it.
This very emblematic image taken after the harvest in a California Central Valley cotton field has been used repeatedly by Patagonia and others to illustrate how incredibly destructive we have been in a very short amount of time to the land which we are inextricably tied to and dependent on. The contrast is stark between this field likely totally depleted in less than a decade and some of the fields I saw in China and Peru that were being farmed continuously for thousands of years and were still fertile and productive.
This is a celery field in the Oxnard Plain in Ventura County being fumigated. You can see the sprayer in the background. I didn’t sneak this photograph. The man is posing. He’s looking at me. I think his stance, his willingness to pose, demonstrates a certain pride. This is not a critique of this person. That’s an important point. He was part of a system. The system and the thinking behind the system are all wrong. And yet, I think there was a certain pride in the power of chemistry, the power of the industrial mindset, the power of the ability to control and manipulate the natural world.
This is the same celery field in Oxnard. That chemical being sprayed directly onto the crop’s leaves and stems enters the plant’s cells and then subsequently enters into our cells when we eat it. I believe that in those days they sprayed every 10 days, so you’ve got to understand that the chemical became fully embedded in the crop.
This farmer is pouring fertilizer into a furrow irrigation ditch. It’s crazy, it’s one of the hottest places in California, and they’re furrow irrigating (flooding the rows between crops). This is not precision farming. The day I was there, it was probably 110 degrees, and probably 80% of that overhead irrigation that you see in the background was evaporating into the atmosphere. So, the whole process makes no sense.