Fields of Plenty
In the summer of 2003, farmer-writer-photographer Michael Ableman and his son piled their belongings into an old VW touring wagon and set off from their farm on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia on a journey to talk with the most cutting-edge vegetable farmers, orchardists, grain growers, dairy farmers, and cheese makers in the US. For Ableman — who is probably best known for establishing Fairview Gardens in the suburbs of Santa Barbara, CA — the trip was a way to reassure himself “that abundance is enhanced, not sacrificed, by humane and sustainable practices.”
The result of the odyssey is the book Fields of Plenty, which combines Ableman’s lovingly arranged photographs with heartfelt essays about the craft of agriculture. A typical Ableman adventure occurs after visiting Polyface Farm, managed by Joel Salatin, who is known for his innovative method of raising grass-fed animals:
“After spending the night at a rest stop on I-64 in Indiana, my son Aaron and I drive a few miles to Exit 105 and stop at a Cracker Barrel restaurant for breakfast. I slip a dozen Polyface Farm eggs and a package of bacon into a plastic shopping bag and take them in with us. After I order Grandma’s Special — pancakes with maple syrup, eggs, bacon, and hash browns — I hand the waitress the eggs and bacon and ask if she’d have my breakfast prepared with those ingredients. She is a little surprised but cooperative. By now, the middle-aged couple sitting at the table next to us have stopped eating and are staring at us, and Aaron has slid halfway under the table from embarrassment.
Dressed in a starched white shirt and pencil-thin black tie, the manager comes out with the carton of eggs and the bacon on a tray, returning them to us and apologizing. He tells me that cooking food supplied by customers is against company rules. I gently press him and ask him to check with his superiors. He tells me he’ll check again and disappears with the tray. By now, every customer sitting within hearing distance is looking on with disbelief.
Fifteen minutes go by, and the manager returns with the waitress by his side, proudly reporting that our request has been approved by headquarters. When I ask why they changed their minds, the manager says, ‘They figured you’re the ones eating the stuff and you’ve taken your own precautions.’
I ask him where they normally get their eggs, wondering how they were raised and whether the chickens ever see the light of day or a blade of grass. The manager returns with a label that reads ‘Loose USDA Grade AA LARGE X 30 Dozen 256 P1595 Sell by 9/22/03’with ‘Use by 10/12/03’ printed in bold black letters. In tiny, barely legible print at the bottom of the label is the name of the Indiana farm that produced the eggs.
Our food arrives, and I ask the waitress whether she notices any difference between these eggs and the ones they normally use. She tells me, ‘No question, these are yellower and look bigger, not so flat.’ The manager follows and tells me he’s sorry for giving me such a hard time. He comments on how yellow the eggs are. I thank him for cooperating and tell him that, next time, I’ll show up with a cow.”
This ideal of food as something to be treasured — not just hurriedly consumed — is also communicated in Ableman’s tender images. One of his most common compositions is of a farmer cradling the fruits of his or her labors. In postures both proud and reverential, these growers carry their produce in a way that reveals the intimacy involved in taking sustenance from the land and then, as Illinois farmer John Thurman puts it, “putting real life into somebody.”
Learn more about Ableman’s writing, photography, and farming by visiting www.fieldsofplenty.com.