My family began farming 35 miles northwest of Phoenix, Arizona, in the 1930s. We’ve grown everything from alfalfa and cotton to parsnips and chard. Growing up, I always knew that whatever else I might do I would return to run the family business, and in the summer of 2002, I did just that. After completing an MFA in sculpture at San Francisco State University (I took my father at his word that “there is nothing you can learn in school that you can’t learn on the farm,” so of course I went for an art degree), I returned to see that the family business had a new crop: suburban homes. As I surveyed the quickly rising housing developments that were replacing the fields, I realized that I would be the last of four generations to farm the land we had been working for over 80 years.
I am not alone. Thousands of fourth- and third- and second- generation growers are leaving the land. So in the spring of 2009, I created the Digital Farm Collective, with the goal of ensuring that the lessons learned from decades of working the land would not be lost, that future generations would have a chance to see crops grow and maybe choose to become farmers, and that everyone might experience the power of planting and harvesting food.
I initially started the Digital Farm Collective to collect and share images of the most important daily process of agriculture — the growth of our produce. Using time-lapse photography, I began filming all the crops on our farm, and soon started inviting other farmers to do the same. Using specially designed solar-powered, weather-resistant units housing digital time-lapse cameras, farmers around the world can film their crops. A photograph is recorded every 15 minutes for the life of the plant. The resulting short films show a single production cycle of each crop, from seed to harvest. Weather stations integrated into the photography units gather real-time environmental data that is cataloged with each film. We are also filming interviews with the farmers about their growing techniques, their historic relationships to growing food, and their general philosophies and hard-won wisdom from a life of farming.
The films and interviews are combined into new-media packages — part art installation, part consumer education. We’ve arranged for monitors playing the time-lapse films to be placed in supermarket produce aisles, as a way to connect shoppers with the origins of the fruits and vegetables on display and help cultivate an awareness of food as a precious commodity. (We present three of those films below.) We are also developing the means for Digital Farm Collective materials to be used as curricular tools to help get children involved in the growing process.
A key component of the Digital Farm Collective will be an international database, or living library, that shares the films, philosophies and agricultural data. While this library is essentially visual, the greater goal is to spur awareness and provoke public dialogue about the future of agriculture as an international community. Global climate change, continual urban encroachment, and ever-expanding agribusiness models are pushing small growers out of business and further distancing consumers from an intimate understanding that their food comes from the earth. In addressing varied and localized growing practices, the films and interviews preserve a record of cultural methodologies and philosophies and of regional agrarian knowledge. My hope is that this collection of film, narrative and information will be a resource for farmers facing new ecological landscapes as growing zones shift in our warming climate.