Inside Iowa State
October 23, 1998
Meeting the people of the land, Green Bay to Albuquerque
by Anne Dolan
If the definition of "improvement" includes 700-mile drives in a day, encounters with aggressive farm dogs and rattlesnakes, and hazy photo shoots in the smoke of the Florida summer fires, Jerry DeWitt is a much improved faculty member.
In a faculty improvement leave that officially will last six months, DeWitt and professional photographer Cynthia Vagnetti of Washington, D.C., visited, interviewed and photographed more than 30 farm and ranch families practicing sustainable agriculture around the country. Since April, they have logged more than 35,000 miles, made it to or through 38 states, recorded about 140 hours of interviews and, between the two of them, shot about 6,500 images.
Not since the 1930s, when people like Dorothea Lange crisscrossed the country shooting photographs of American rural life, has such an extensive project been done, DeWitt said.
"My mistake was that I asked for six months for a year-and-a- half project," DeWitt said.
And it isn't quite over. Their proposal was to visit each family twice, but because El Nino weather pushed back planting and harvesting in some parts of the country, the duo has several more stops to make. Between mid-October and early December, DeWitt will make five Midwest harvest stops and journeys to a dairy farm in South Carolina, a cotton farm in Missouri, a sugar cane farm in Louisiana and a poultry farm owned by a new community of Muslims near Hattiesburg, Miss.
"I wanted to learn more about people on the land and the balance between profit, sustainability and the social (family) element, as they understand it," said DeWitt, an entomologist by training.
"The 'how' of sustainable agriculture is available to us at universities, but this project really was an inquiry into values and why people make the decisions that lead to sustainable ag," he said. "My job is servicing those interested in moving to sustainable agriculture."
Unofficially, DeWitt's project began two years ago with fund raising. While DeWitt's salary was covered during the leave, Vagnetti's was not. Nor were there funds for living expenses, equipment and supplies and travel costs. They received funding totaling more than $150,000 from the Wallace Genetic Foundation, several units under the U.S. Department of Agriculture umbrella, Novartis Crop Protection and Pioneer Hi-Bred International. Next, they spent four months identifying the families for their project, relying on personal contacts and referrals.
They sought -- and achieved -- a range of people and experiences. Farms from three to 10,000 acres. Commodities that included oranges, grapes, corn, peppers, rice, cattle, organic apples, sheep and kamut, an ancient Egyptian grain used by people whose bodies can't digest wheat products. Asian Americans, Native Americans, African American Muslims, Hispanics and Caucasians between the ages of 30 and 85. One- man operations to a seventh-generation family farm. Green Bay to Albuquerque, and Orlando to the Snake River in Washington state.
DeWitt and Vagnetti plan to share their journey several ways. A book, People Sustaining the Land, will be published in the spring or summer 2000. It will contain up to 300 photographs, DeWitt said, and text that focuses on the words of the farmers and ranchers they visited. They also will produce a 20-minute video that focuses on the marketing strategies of 27 producers.
DeWitt said he hopes their small library of images can be used nationwide, whether electronically or in print form, to influence how agriculture faculty "view men and women on the land."
"They're tinkers, they're always looking for improvement, they're risk-takers and they're so committed to sharing," he noted. "In traditional agriculture, there is more competition."
DeWitt said that what he observed should be encouraging to Iowa, a state with a "sensitivity to sustainability in agriculture."
Iowa State's interest in promoting sustainability is evident in its affiliation with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the fact that there's an organic specialist on the faculty, he added.
DeWitt learned that there's not a strong correlation between size of a farm or ranch and stewardship.
"That fundamental belief in balancing profitability, land stewardship and family comes in all sizes," he said. "These elements are attractive to men and women who care, and that gives me hope here in Iowa."
He noted that producers with creative marketing plans, those who have found their "niche," actually are not at the mercy of the markets and are not suffering the economic uncertainty of many farmers and ranchers, particularly this year.
DeWitt said one of the most encouraging messages for him is that producers want to be able to look to land-grant universities for information and assistance.
"They're not big users of land-grants, but there's still a mystique in the land-grant system and an expectation for the land-grants to respond to their needs," he said.
"They haven't given up on their land-grants, and I was touched by that. It tells me there's still time for land- grants to respond in this century," he added.
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